Seattle hospital chief ‘very concerned’ about Thanksgiving, warns hospital ‘beds are tight’

In an exclusive interview with Q13 News, Simone Del Rosario is joined by Dr. Elizabeth Wako, Chief Operating Officer of Swedish First Hill. Dr. Wako reveals that hospital bed capacity is “tight” as COVID hospitalizations near record highs across the state.

She said Swedish First Hill has voluntarily reduced inpatient surgical volumes by about 90 percent to make room for more COVID cases and is urging Washingtonians to mask up and stay socially distanced during the holidays. Wako said indoor Thanksgiving gatherings have “the potential to really hurt us the second week of December.”

Del Rosario: We are hearing some daunting statistics about COVID hospitalizations reaching record numbers in this pandemic. How close is your hospital to reaching capacity?

Dr. Wako: COVID cases continue to uptick across Puget Sound and certainly here at Swedish. We're admitting probably a COVID patient every two hours. Due to this, we're taking a certain number of proactive steps to protect our patients and to keep our caregivers safe. And we're really concerned about the weeks after Thanksgiving. Frankly, the post-Halloween surge last week was hard. We're very, very concerned about the weeks after Thanksgiving. Halloween is an outdoor holiday, imagine Thanksgiving, inside, large numbers of people eating at a table in close proximity. It has the potential to really hurt us in the second week of December.

Del Rosario: How quickly have you seen the COVID patients in your hospital increase over the past few weeks?

Dr. Wako: They've increased pretty steadily over the past few weeks. I would say last week was the hardest week for us. This week we've been pretty stable, it's definitely holding solid. We're not in a normal state, we're seeing higher volumes than typically you would see in the fall or winter flu season. We're definitely shifting patients and staff between multiple campuses. We do have our hospital incident command up, all of us know how to manage capacity in an earthquake or in this case a pandemic. But that's not ideal state for us to function.

Del Rosario: State Health Officer Dr. [Kathy] Lofy said today that every hospital has a surge plan. Where are you at in activating yours?

Dr. Wako: We've been in surge plan I think pretty much all of COVID. We took some downtime in the summer and then pretty much came back up again in October. Like I said, we do have our hospital incident command up, we meet as a team once a day, there's multiple huddles throughout the day. Volumes fluctuate in the hospital and we manage as we get the volumes.

Del Rosario: Are you making cuts to other hospital operations to make room for the COVID patients you're getting in and anticipating?

Dr. Wako: Yes, in the sense that we have done some things to accommodate our COVID cases. We've reduced our inpatient surgical volumes probably by 90 percent so we have enough staff and beds to care for our COVID patients. I think those are where we're seeing majority of our staffing changes. We don't really have capacity, we're built to flex up and flex down as needed. We do have capacity in our ICUs and on our floor, but I'm not gonna lie, it's tight, beds are tight. And I think the most important thing we can do now is to really mask up and pay attention to our social distancing. And with the holidays coming up, we're hopeful that Washingtonians will be able to flatten the curve again with social distancing and masking.

Del Rosario: It's an important message. I remember early in the pandemic a lot of people really rallied around health care workers. We’re hearing in other places around the state that health care staffing is starting to become an issue because our health care workers are out in our community and getting sick as well. Are you seeing that there?

Dr. Wako: Yes we are, we're definitely seeing a certain number of caregivers that are out either on sick or on quarantine. For this holiday season, we are encouraging all of our caregivers to avoid travel, to celebrate only with their households. We know that it's going to be really hard on everyone and we expect that there will be difficulty in achieving that but we're holding our health care workers to a higher standard.

Del Rosario: And the one thing we can do to help health care workers is for us to be staying home and trying to decrease transmission as well. Dr. Wako, thank you so much for your time today.