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'It's heartbreaking.' One hospital chief executive’s warning about the fifth wave of COVID-19

Darrin Goss, the chief executive of Providence Health and Services SW says the current fifth wave of COVID-19 is the hardest yet.
Providence SW Washington
Darin Goss, the chief executive of Providence Health and Services SW, says the current fifth wave of COVID-19 is the hardest yet.

How bad is the fifth wave of COVID-19? One hospital in Thurston County, Washington is limiting visitors, the intensive care unit is at capacity and elective surgeries and procedures are being delayed.

The situation at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia is not pretty. You might even say it’s dire.

As of Thursday, the hospital was running at surge capacity – meaning over its normal occupancy limit. There were 41 people in the emergency room awaiting a hospital bed. And 41 of 42 critical care, or intensive care, beds were full. Fourteen of them with COVID-19 patients.

Combined, St. Pete’s and its sister hospital in Centralia are treating 60 COVID patients.

“This is our hardest phase we have yet to ever see during this pandemic from a volume perspective,” said Darin Goss, chief executive of Providence Health and Services Southwest, which serves a five-county area, including Thurston and Lewis Counties.

Providence Southwest could be the proverbial canary in a coal mine as a fifth wave of COVID-19 washes over the state. Already, the hospital has banned most visitors and it’s once again canceling some non-emergency surgeries and procedures that require the patient to stay overnight at the hospital.

MultiCare and UW are also putting off some procedures, according to the Washington State Hospital Association.

Statewide the picture is also concerning. Hospital admissions are climbing steadily and steeply, according to the Department of Health’s dashboard. ICU capacity generally hovers around 80 percent. But that appears to be rising now too.

To make a difficult situation more difficult, hospitals like St. Pete’s were already facing staffing shortages, and the people who are still on the job are exhausted.

“We want to be here to protect our community and that is being challenged right now,” Goss said.

And the future outlook, at least for the next few weeks, doesn’t look promising, based on predictive models. That could mean even more canceled surgeries.

This is the kind of trendline that Gov. Jay Inslee has warned could lead to new COVID-19 restrictions. For instance, he hasn’t ruled out re-imposing a statewide mask mandate. Some local officials aren’t waiting. On Thursday, the top public health officer in Thurston County directed all residents five and older to mask up in indoor public settings. Snohomish County has done the same.

At Providence Southwest, Goss said his hospitals were already busy and then COVID hit again. But this fifth wave feels different. While there’ve been a few breakthrough cases, the majority of the patients are unvaccinated and they’re younger, “much younger” Goss said, than in the past. And people are still dying.

“We are seeing deaths of COVID and I think it’s heartbreaking for some of our staff, especially, and family members when you do see that they had a chance ahead of this to be vaccinated,” Goss said.

His message to the public is nothing new: mask up, wash your hands, practice social distancing and get tested if you have symptoms.

But more than anything, he’s urging those who are not vaccinated to not delay any longer.

“If you would like to help and protect our community, I strongly encourage that you get the vaccine,” Goss says. “Help us, help others and that’s the main message.”

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."