Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Washington State Fair will open with restrictions as COVID cases overwhelm understaffed hospitals

Registered nurse Andraya Zelle, left, and respiratory therapist Bailey Synhavong treat a patient in the COVID intensive care unit at UW Medical Center-Montlake, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
Registered nurse Andraya Zelle, left, and respiratory therapist Bailey Synhavong treat a patient in the COVID intensive care unit at UW Medical Center-Montlake on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Seattle.

Leaders with the Washington State Hospital Association did not mince words when asked if it was a bad idea to hold the Washington State Fair this month.

“Do we think it’s a bad idea for events like the Puyallup fair to go on considering our current situation? Yes, we think it’s a bad idea. Anybody disagree with me?” said Cassie Sauer, WSHA president and CEO.

“I think it’s a very bad idea,” responded Dr. Dave Carlson, chief physician officer for Tacoma-based MultiCare Health System.

But the fair will go on, beginning Friday and through much of the month of September, under a health care order from Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

Carlson and other executives with the county’s major health systems consulted about safety plans for the fair during meetings that began in earnest Friday, a week before opening day.

But those health care providers were noticeably absent when the order was announced Tuesday. The health department instituted a mask mandate and other safety measures for fairgoers to help mitigate risk.

Carlson says hospital capacity doesn’t have to be this way. Earlier this week when he checked the numbers, MultiCare hospitals were treating 275 COVID patients.

“Had all of those people been vaccinated, we would have between 10 and 12,” Carlson told KNKX Public Radio. “It’s staggering. The situation we’re in is so utterly preventable. And if you think about the impact this is having on the people taking care of them.”

The people caring for those patients are stretched thin. Carlson says MultiCare, like all hospitals, have plans in place for patient surges. But those aren’t designed to last beyond several days. The health system has exhausted all of its options. Restrictions on elective surgeries are more severe than at any other point in the pandemic, in large part to free up staff. Surgical staff and nurse practitioners are being redeployed to emergency rooms. And more than 300 volunteers with a range of skills are stepping in to help wherever there is a need. Some are even getting food handler cards to make sandwiches in cafeterias.

Large hospitals within the health system are even setting up tents outside, to create space for people waiting to seek care.

“A busy emergency room waiting room can promote transmission of disease,” Carlson said. “We’re trying to move the waiting outside.”

One of those hospitals is Good Samaritan in Puyallup, less than a mile away from the state fairgrounds that typically welcomes more than a million people in a normal year.

Despite the warnings from hospital leaders, a cohort of local officials told reporters Tuesday that the fair is safe thanks to the work of elected leaders and the health department.

“We need to protect the capacity of our hospitals, but at the same time, we need to remember the value and importance of things like the Washington State Fair and the role that it plays in many lives in our community,” said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.

Fair CEO Kent Hojem stressed that safety is the top priority of his staff. He underscored the daily widespread testing of all fair workers, the vaccination stations for the public and reduced capacity on rides and among vendors.

As for masking, Hojem says there will be zero tolerance for people violating the order. It will be enforced proactively by fairgrounds staff, who will hand out masks to those who don’t have one. Anyone who doesn’t comply will be asked to leave.

“We'll try to do so in a non-confrontational manner,” Hojem said.

Chen says the health department will closely monitor activity at the fair, particularly any outbreaks and the rate of positive tests among staff. The situation could be re-evaluated depending on outcomes.

In a statement to KNKX, a MultiCare spokesperson said the health orders are a step in the right direction, but the risk posed by the fair is still high.

“There is still significant risk in attending large events while the delta variant continues to surge in our communities,” the statement reads. “Our health care system already faces significant strain due to increased numbers of COVID-19 patients and the risk of increased transmission of the virus through an event like the fair would almost certainly result in more COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.”

The event also attracts fairgoers from around the region, as other hospitals deal with similar strain. Earlier this week, Seattle-based Virginia Mason Franciscan Health reported more than 200 COVID patients – including 35 in the ICU – who were being treated across its hospitals.

“The vast majority of cases requiring hospitalization are among unvaccinated patients,” a statement from Virginia Mason Franciscan reads.

In Port Townsend, hospital staffing decisions at Jefferson Healthcare are being made day by day to accommodate the surge in COVID patients.

“It’s hard to look out much beyond 36 to 48 hours because we are constantly pulling in staff members above and beyond what their FTE is to come in and do a shift tonight in order to provide safe care,” said Mike Glenn, CEO of Jefferson Healthcare.

Glenn joined other health care providers from the Washington State Hospital Association Monday in renewing their calls for people to get vaccinated. Glenn also says other prevention measures – like avoiding crowds and masking up – will help relieve capacity issues.

“That level of support is quite a bit more meaningful than banging on a pot to recognize the good work of a nurse and a technician,” Glenn said.

Right now, 73 percent of eligible people in Washington have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Because uptake is plateauing, the threshold for herd immunity is a moving target.

“These are incredibly powerful tools. But unfortunately the math keeps changing,” said Dr. Mark Johnson, an infectious disease specialist with Confluence Health in Wenatchee. “(The virus) just wants to infect us, and it will keep looking for survival advantage. So we’re going to keep seeing this pop up again and again and again until we get enough of us vaccinated.”

Johnson says the number to hit for vaccinations is now 85 to 90 percent of the total population. The longer people wait to get the shot, officials say, the more likely it is that target will move again as the virus mutates.

Carlson told KNKX that health care professionals are tired and frustrated. He says they’re providing quality care. But, he stressed, the best care possible is prevention and the vaccine is easier to get than ever.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.