BREMERTON — While hospitalizations across Washington state are spiking following this month’s surge of COVID-19 infections, St. Michael Medical Center continues to have capacity. Kitsap County health officials, however, have grown increasingly concerned about the rising strain on the health care system in the coming weeks. 

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized at St. Michael has doubled since the start of November, leading to as many as 16 patients at the hospital last week. In a press release Wednesday, Kitsap Public Health officials said the county’s health care system is “coping with demand thus far.” 

However, Kitsap Health Official Dr. Gib Morrow said if the pandemic’s surge continues unchecked it could make for a health care crisis, especially when combined with flu season.

“There is very real potential for our hospitals and clinics to become overwhelmed in coming weeks and months unless we take decisive action as individuals and as a community to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses,” said Morrow, who pleaded for residents to follow health measures, including the governor’s recent ban on indoor gatherings. 

St. Michael Medical Center, formerly known as Harrison hospital, in East Bremerton. (Photo: Austen Macalus / Kitsap Sun)

“Now is simply not a safe time for us to gather with people from outside our households,” Morrow said. “I urge Kitsap residents to avoid gatherings, for the sake of their families, neighbors, and the frontline workers who are putting themselves at risk to keep our community healthy.”

Kitsap’s infection rate has reached its highest level of the pandemic, with new COVID-19 cases per day exceeding record highs throughout the month. And tragically, that has brought more fatal cases. 

On Tuesday, Kitsap Public Health officials reported another person died from the virus, bringing the county’s death count up to at least 27 people. The state Department of Health reports 30 fatal cases for Kitsap. Deaths in the past two months alone now outnumber all of Kitsap’s fatal cases in the previous seven months. 

The latest death involved an older adult with underlying health conditions, which has been true for the vast majority of Kitsap fatal COVID-19 cases: more than 80% have been people age 65 or older, all have involved those with underlying health conditions, according to the Kitsap Public Health District. 

An Associated Press analysis found that one out of every 471 Washington residents has tested positive for the virus in the past week. As of Tuesday, the state has reported nearly 154,000, including 2,700 deaths.  

As a result, hospital occupancy across the state is “soaring,” the state health department said in a statement Wednesday. The number of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients hospitalized has doubled this month, rising from 471 on Nov. 1 to 932 on Monday. In intensive care units, confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients have increased by about 75% in that time. 

CHI Franciscan, the hospital system that owns St. Michael, is feeling that impact. 

CHI Franciscan hospitals have seen nearly a 150% increase since the start of November, hospital officials said in an online update Tuesday, resulting in challenges when it comes to bed capacity and staffing. Hospital officials did not comment about the number of COVID-19 cases at St. Michael hospital.  

CHI Franciscan facilities are not restricting non-urgent procedures right now, but they have restricted visitors  a measure put in place following a major COVID-19 outbreak at St. Michael hospital in August. The hospital is still encouraging Kitsap residents to continue seeking preventive and emergency care if they need it and to not avoid going to the hospital if they are facing a medical emergency.

The hospital system says it is closely monitoring cases to ensure it is able to manage a rising number of COVID-19 cases while ensuring capacity for other patients. “St. Michael Medical Center is prepared to meet the demands presented by COVID-19,” Dr. David Weiss, associate chief medical officer for St. Michael Medical Center, said in a statement. 

“We continue to implement several enhanced safety protocols, including robust surveillance testing of our staff, and are closely monitoring the increase in cases along with our public health partners,” he said. 

But Weiss said that widespread COVID-19 transmission increases the chances of health care workers getting infected, which only further strain the hospital. 

“We know for certain that when COVID activity increases in the community, hospitals and health care workers are at risk, despite our best efforts to limit the spread,” he said.

Austen Macalus is the Kitsap Sun’s social services reporter — covering health care, homelessness and how programs are serving people living in poverty. He can be reached at [email protected] or 360-536-6423. 

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