Hospitals in sparsely vaccinated areas prepare to ration care

Last week we heard how some hospitals in Idaho were overflowing and starting to ration care. That crisis has now spread statewide, and is forcing hospitals to start sending sick patients to neighboring states. William Brangham reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting, the COVID pandemic continues across the country.

    Last week, we heard how some hospitals in Idaho were overflowing and starting to ration care. That crisis has now spread statewide.

    As William Brangham reports, it is forcing hospitals to start sending sick patients to neighboring states.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, that's right.

    Washington state is now fielding transfer requests from Idaho hospitals, who say they can no longer handle the numbers they're seeing. And this comes as Washington itself is already dealing with its own spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

    Joining me now is Dr. Dan Getz. He's the chief medical officer for the Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington.

    Dr. Getz, thank you very much for being here.

    So, before we get to you getting these calls from other states, help us understand how things were in Spokane, where you are, already.

  • Dr. Dan Getz, Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center:

    Yes, thanks, William.

    We're in Spokane. We're on the eastern side of Washington state. And for reference, Sacred Heart Medical Center, we're the second largest hospital in Washington, roughly 700 beds, highly specialized. We do heart transplants. We do kidney transplants. We offer the highest level of cardiac and stroke care. We're the only trauma center for the region.

    So, even prior to the pandemic, we were very busy taking care of diseases and illnesses which were common in our community. Since the inception of pandemic, we have just worked really hard to plan for the inevitable increase in patients.

    But over the last several weeks, we have seen a surge to the point where it's making it very difficult to serve just the needs of our community, as well as accepting the outline transfers that are part of being the largest regional medical center.

  • William Brangham:

    So, when you compare this to, say, the worst parts of the winter surge for you guys, how does this compare?

  • Dr. Dan Getz:

    We're significantly beyond that.

    Over the last week, it seems like, every day, we hit a new record for daily hospitalizations. The biggest area we are struggling right now is trying to create capacity in our ICUs, really where you take care of the sickest of the sick.

    And when you see COVID patients, really, really ill COVID patients, you're putting them on ventilators, so you're breathing for them. They can be in your ICU for two or three weeks on that ventilator. And so it's very difficult to create extra space for those incoming patients, as well as care for the needs of our community.

    So those traumas, those heart attacks, those strokes that come in inevitably, we're trying to care for, in addition to the extra load of COVID patients.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you're already dealing with your own burdens, and then the phone rings from these other states saying, hey, can you help us out?

    I mean, it doesn't sound like you have that much excess capacity.

  • Dr. Dan Getz:

    Yes, we're struggling for capacity.

    We're making due. We're not in a crisis standards of care situation, although that's possible if we continue to see volumes to grow — continue to grow.

    I think what's important, we look at these borders and our neighbors to the east. Idaho is very close. It's a 40-minute drive away to get to Coeur d'Alene. So, we consider those patients members of our community and we want to care for them.

    And in certain parts of our own community in Washington state, our vaccination rates are much higher. So this is a crisis that's created by poor uptake of the vaccine. And if we had higher vaccination rates, we wouldn't be in this situation right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that — the majority of patients in your ICU are unvaccinated?

  • Dr. Dan Getz:

    Almost the entirety. Currently, all of our patients on ventilators in the ICU right now are unvaccinated patients.

  • William Brangham:

    And you touched on this just a moment ago, but I understand you're also getting calls from Texas and Missouri, again, similar states that don't have very high vaccination rates and aren't maybe stressing mitigation measures as much.

    Given that, where does that — where do you think we are headed in the next week, two weeks, three weeks?

  • Dr. Dan Getz:

    No, we're going to continue to see more sick patients.

    And that's the most frustrating thing right now for people that work in health care, all across the board, whether you're a physician or an R.N., or a phlebotomist who work in environmental services and clean rooms.

    We feel like the community is not taking this seriously. And we know, when you look across the country in states that have mask mandates, the higher masking utilization, you see the lower incidence of COVID, the fewer people are in hospitals.

    And I don't think the general population realizes that health care, we have limited resources. Once you saturate all of our resources, use up all our ventilators, we no longer will provide dialysis, people will die as a result of that.

    We have to make those really challenging decisions trying to care for all. And, eventually, we're going to run out of those essential tools that we need.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, that's got to be incredibly frustrating for people like yourself.

    I saw earlier today you were lamenting that local officials were allowing the county fair to go on, where a lot of people are going to be unmasked and crowded together.

  • Dr. Dan Getz:

    That's incredibly frustrating.

    I understand that people have lost a lot of venues for socialization and entertainment, but it's not worth trading human lives for, right? I mean, fairs are fun, but we're not going to trade lives for a fair. And it's really at that point now where, as a society, as Americans, if we can adopt vaccination broadly enough, a vaccine that has proven to clearly be safe and highly effective, we can get through this pandemic, we can go back to life as normal and sit alongside one another without masks and having to worry about this disease.

    And people think this disease only strikes people that have medical conditions, which is entirely not true. We're seeing young people that were previously very healthy developing severe COVID disease. And we don't understand why those certain people develop this severe disease. But we know that, if they have been vaccinated, they'd be protected from this.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Dan Getz of the Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, thank you very much for being here.

  • Dr. Dan Getz:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

Listen to this Segment