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Plans to reopen feel different for rural hospitals – just like the pandemic itself

As the state prepares to lift COVID restrictions at the end of this month, KNKX is talking with health-care leaders about what they're anticipating. 

Dealing with the pandemic has looked different in rural areas than it has in the big hospitals of Washington's larger cities. Kittitas County, just across the Cascade Mountains from Seattle, has a population of about 48,000 people, spread over 2,333 square miles. And Kittitas Valley Healthcare in Ellensburg is its biggest hospital, at 25 regular beds and six intensive-care unit beds.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kevin Martin says four of those beds are occupied, and two of those patients have COVID. He says the gradual return to normalcy feels good and also makes him nervous.

Listen to the interview above, or read some highlights below.


On the state’s plan to reopen by June 30: “It was a surprise for me like it was for everyone else. At the time, when we were discussing rolling back (the reopening phases), there was a real pinch on ICU beds on this side of the Cascades. Overall, we’re seeing a decline in case numbers across the state; we’re seeing a decline in hospitalizations. But here in our hospital right now, we’re seeing an increase in COVID admissions over the last few days. Out of my six ICU beds, four of them are occupied, and two of them are COVID-positive.”

The emergency department triage area is set up at Kittitas Valley Healthcare in Ellensburg.
Credit Kittitas Valley Healthcare
Kittitas Valley Healthcare
The emergency department triage area at Kittitas Valley Healthcare in Ellensburg.

On vaccinations in Kittitas County: “Right now we have nearly 40 percent of our adults fully vaccinated. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised, but we’re a long way from 70. Given that there are a significant number of people across the state who are distrustful of vaccination, will we get there? And if not, how long can we justify keeping everything locked down because only 50 percent of the population is willing to get vaccinated, or only 60 percent, or whatever that number is?”

On the state reimposing restrictions if ICU capacity hits 90 percent statewide: “I’ve been on at least two calls a month – and usually six – with leaders of every hospital in the state. … The pledge we’ve made to each other – and it’s the reason that 90 percent number can work – is that nobody’s going to hit the wall alone. We’re going to share resources, we’re going to do what needs to be done to stretch our resources as far as we have to, for as long as we have to. Sitting here 110 miles from Seattle, I hope I don’t have to rely on that pledge, but it’s good to know it’s there.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.