Hospitals in Rural Wash. transfer hundreds of patients to metropolitan areas

Joseph O’Sullivan
Seattle weather

OLYMPIA, Washington – Overwhelmed by the fifth wave of COVID-19, hospitals in rural Washington have transferred hundreds of patients to metropolitan areas since July 1, according to statewide data.

More than half of those 414 transferred patients went to King County hospitals, according to data from the Washington Medical Coordination Center.

More than half of all rural Washington patients transferring to metropolitan areas are sent to King County medical facilities.

More than half of all rural Washington patients transferring to metropolitan areas are sent to King County medical facilities. (

Run out of Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, the MCC serves as a clearinghouse for placing patients in the state when the hospital they arrive cannot take them, according to Dr. Steven Mitchell, MCC’s medical director.

Health officials formed the MCC following the outbreak at Life Care Center in Kirkland in February 2020, according to Mitchell, which quickly put a strain on the nearby hospital.

“If a nursing home could overwhelm just one hospital, we had to find a solution to prevent that from happening,” he said.

A hospital that can’t take a patient and can’t find a bed at a nearby facility can call MCC to help them find a place elsewhere in the state. The MCC then works with state hospitals to find a bed elsewhere, what Mitchell calls a “backstop” to help when regional health systems are too strained.

Transferred patients may have either COVID-19 or an unrelated medical issue, Mitchell said.

As the most contagious delta variant began to spread widely this summer, the MCC began to see its highest pandemic workload, according to Mitchell, who is also medical director of the Harborview Emergency Department.

“Almost all of the calls we received were from small rural and critical access hospitals, from those rural areas,” Mitchell said.

Data on 414 transfers facilitated by MCC between July 1 and September 23 shows hundreds of patients transferred out of rural Washington facilities.

The counties transferring the most patients elsewhere cover central, eastern and southwestern Washington. They include: Okanogan (46), Lewis (43), Stevens (39), Grays Harbor (33), Yakima (29), Grant (28) and Pacific (26).

More than half of all transferred patients (229) have come to King County medical facilities, the data shows.

More than three-quarters of Washingtonians 12 and older received at least one injection of COVID-19 on Monday. But this overall rate masks the fact that many rural counties have much lower vaccination rates.

State health officials said more than 94% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 between February 1 and August 3 were not fully immunized.

Hospitals – as they did before the pandemic – regularly coordinate transfers between themselves, according to Beth Zborowski, senior vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association.

For this reason, the MCC data “shows real stress in the system” and “also won’t capture all of the patient movements that might occur on a regional basis,” Zborowski wrote in an email.

The number of transfers and the distance patients are sent are unique to the pandemic, Mitchell said, and is another indicator of a strained medical system. Rural communities may have only a handful of ambulances and may need to drive from far east Washington to Pierce County to move a patient.

“It’s a one-day event for this ambulance, which is then not available to their community,” he said. Helicopters also transport people – and faster than ambulances – but they are also much more expensive.

The MCC is unlikely to close soon and can be useful in handling other emergencies, such as an earthquake or mass shooting.

“We are working to make it something that can be a good legacy of the pandemic,” he said.

(c) 2021 The Seattle Times

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