Bellingham hospital feeling impact of recent COVID surge

Eufemia Didonato

Whatcom County’s surge in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases isn’t just being seen in the daily data on the Washington State Department of Health’s dashboard — St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham is also feeling the increase.

The hospital has seen “nearly a four-fold” increase in the number of COVID patients it’s treating in just a week, PeaceHealth Regional Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sudhakar Karlapudi said during an online briefing by the Whatcom County Health Department Monday, Nov. 23.

“We are definitely seeing that surge at the hospital,” Karlapudi said.

One week ago on Nov. 16, the hospital was treating five COVID patients, according to information sent to The Bellingham Herald in an email from spokesperson Bev Mayhew. As of Nov. 23, that number was up to 18, meaning Whatcom County has seen a 260% increase in daily hospitalizations in just seven days.

Before reporting 11 and 15 COVID cases on Saturday and Sunday, the previous high the hospital reported was 10 on July 23 and matched on Nov. 19.

Three of 18 COVID patients at the hospital Monday are from outside of Whatcom County, Mayhew told The Herald in an email. Those patients came from areas where their local hospitals were not necessarily overwhelmed but instead required the higher level of expertise available in Bellingham.

“This is not an unusual occurrence; i.e., as the largest regional Level II Trauma Center, we frequently receive patients that require a higher level of care from other locales,” Mayhew wrote.

St. Joseph hospital is licensed and has enough staff and beds for 241 patients, Karlapudi said during Monday’s briefing, and ordinarily, it is between 85% and 90% full with patients seeking treatment for a variety of non-COVID-related medical issues.

The hospital currently has 22 beds allocated for COVID patients, Karlapudi reported, as those beds must have “physical barriers” to separate them from non-COVID patients.

If the number of COVID-related hospitalizations continues to grow, Karlapudi said the hospital has plans to increase its COVID capacity, but that would involved investing “chunks of the hospital and beds” to make sure COVID patients remain separated from non-COVID patients. That in turn would mean fewer beds for non-COVID patients.

Karlapudi also added that the hospital has 34 intensive care unit beds and could expand to 43, with 43 ventilators and staff to serve that many ICU beds.

Flu vs. COVID

While influenza has been around for thousands of years, Karlapudi said the fact that COVID-19 has only been seen for one year makes it more difficult and dangerous.

“We have no immunity to it,” Karlapudi said, “and the disease has a much higher mortality rate than flu.”

The more than 257,000 deaths in the United States related to COVID-19 are already more than the number of flu-related deaths seen the past six years, Karlapudi said, and if the current death rate continues, the U.S. will surpass the number of flu-related deaths seen in the past seven years within the next two weeks.

“And we’re still figuring out the long-term effects of the disease,” Karlapudi said, adding that some Olympic-level athletes who have contracted the respiratory illness have not yet returned to being themselves, as COVID-19 has been found to uniquely impact multiple other organ systems in ways that the flu doesn’t.

As of Nov. 14, the Washington State Department of Health reported that flu activity in the state is “low” and that there have been no lab-confirmed deaths related to flu during the 2020-21 season.

Though he said that news is encouraging, Karlapudi cautioned that it is still extremely early in the flu season, and that the number of cases usually grows after the holidays.

He added the measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19, such as promoting good hygiene, social distancing and face-covering usage, also could reduce the spread of the flu.

Whatcom County Health Director Erika Lautenbach added during the briefing that a higher-than-normal number of people have received flu vaccinations this year, following advice from health officials to help lessen the impact on the healthcare system.

Preventing the holiday surge

“COVID-19 is not smarter than us,” Karlapudi said during Monday’s briefing. “We are a billion or trillion times larger than the virus and we think much more complex than the virus.”

But, Karlapudi said the COVID virus depends on two things to thrive and spread:

A breakdown in our habits of good hygiene or wearing face coverings.

People being social creatures and wanting to connect with our loved ones.

“We’re social animals and we want to connect with those that we love,” Karlapudi said. “We want to physically connect and get close enough that the virus can spread between us. The challenge, of course, is how do we still connect with our loved ones without getting close enough to spread the disease?”

Using technology and finding other creative ways to connect while stopping transmission was the key to enjoying a safe holiday, Karlapudi said.

Follow more of our reporting on Full coverage of coronavirus in Washington

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David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.

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