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Soaring Hospitalization Strains Rural, Northeast Washington Health Care Providers

Courtesy of the Northeast Tri-County Health District

Hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases in eastern Washington and north Idaho are soaring – and healthcare providers fear that if this trend continues, there will soon be a shortage of both beds and staff to treat dangerously ill patients from both rural and urban communities.

Northeast Tri County Health Officer Sam Artzis said the counties he serves, Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille, have not only approached the high tide mark from last December for hospitalization and new cases.

“We’ve already eclipsed that, and if you look at the curve this time, it’s almost going straight up and we haven’t even hit the peak yet. We’re very concerned at the moment, and I can tell you, our medical system having talked with our region hospital and local hospitals in the three-county area, we’re under a great deal of stress right now.”

He said, on average, the three rural counties are seeing about 30 new cases a day. According to health district data, more than 97% of those cases are in unvaccinated people. The vaccination rate those in three counties is below 40%, and the county with the least vaccinated people is Stevens County, with about 32% of the county’s population fully vaccinated.

Artzis noted that hospitals in rural northeast communities are normally dependent on the capacity at Kootenai Health, and hospitals in Spokane. But those hospitals emergency rooms are also filling up due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the unvaccinated, and more severe health emergencies caused by many people who have been delaying care during the pandemic.

Artzis said he was concerned the lack of capacity will mean more transfers to farther away health care systems.

“The care that people get, even in a stressed situation, they’re getting excellent care, but the challenge is, it may not be in a timely manner, and the second is, it may be away from family. You may be getting care in a different state. It’s not a concern – it’s a reality right now.”

He said he’s hoping the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the clear risks of remaining unvaccinated and the availability of a third dose could help with the growing capacity issues and staffing shortages.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.
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