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Omicron hits Seattle's Harborview Medical Center harder than other surges


In Washington state, the governor has called on National Guard to help ease the pandemic's strain on medical workers and ordered hospitals to halt non-urgent procedures. NPR's Will Stone reports from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: The omicron surge hitting Harborview is bigger than any that have come before it - well beyond last winter's peak. And it looks different, too. During earlier surges, the ICUs were the places most overloaded, often with sick patients on ventilators. There's still some of that, but nurse Isabelle Norville says now most COVID patients are filling up regular acute care units like hers.

ISABELLE NORVILLE: We still have the occasional patient that deteriorates a little bit with COVID, you know, needing ICU care. But there are certainly far, far more patients on acute care than in the ICU.

STONE: This unit can fit 34 patients, and Norville says about half of them have COVID.

NORVILLE: A lot of them with omicron are able to move about in the room as they please unless they have something else going on. They require oxygen less often.

STONE: That's what doctors are finding at many hospitals in heavily vaccinated areas like Seattle. Fewer patients are having severe respiratory problems compared to earlier in the pandemic. In fact, Norville says many patients are coming in for some other medical issue altogether. But then, once they're tested...

NORVILLE: Just patients popping up positive all over the hospital. You know, every day we get an email - at least one or two popping up - surprise positives.

STONE: It's estimated about 40% of the COVID patients at Harborview and its other affiliated hospitals are asymptomatic. And Norville says hearing only this side of it, that people aren't as sick and some don't have any symptoms, can leave people puzzled about why this COVID surge is so bad. Except there's a lot people don't see, like how many nurses are not there because they're quarantining or isolating, and every COVID patient is taxing.

NORVILLE: It's not that we run into the room, finish up a quick work and then jump right back out to go to the next room. You know, having two or three COVID patients is really hard to keep track of.

STONE: And COVID means more duties must be done by nurses.

NORVILLE: The strain of us delivering the trays - because, you know, meal services can't enter the room, so we're left to clean the rooms, deliver the meals.

JOHN LYNCH: The health workforce is nearing a breaking point in a way that's never happened before.

STONE: That's Dr. John Lynch, who's head of infection control at Harborview.

LYNCH: This is a 413-bed hospital that has over 500 patients. That's a big deal.

STONE: They're converting surgery clinics or even conference spaces to COVID rooms. Patients are waiting longer in the emergency room for a hospital bed. And because Harborview is so short-staffed, health care workers are having to care for more patients all at once. Lynch worries Washington state is getting closer than it has ever been to the most dire measures, known as crisis standards, when care might even be rationed. And yet...

LYNCH: It's very difficult for folks to come to work and to see the challenges we're facing here and then to look across the street or down the block and see packed restaurants with brunches and bars packed and unmasked huge gatherings.

STONE: Back on the COVID unit, nurse Jason Naki says he's worked through the other surges, and it never gets easier - not just because it's tiring, but now it's demoralizing.

JASON NAKI: What makes me feel good about my job is delivering good care and being compassionate. And sometimes with, like, our staffing ratios and, like, just the sheer numbers that we're dealing with right now, it's very difficult to provide that level of care that I want to.

STONE: Naki says he hopes things will change. But for him, someone committed to nursing, he's not sure how much longer he can sustain this.

Will Stone, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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