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COVID patients expected to strain Washington’s ICU capacity this fall

The COVID-19 pandemic’s fifth wave is sweeping through Washington State and will likely continue through the holidays, placing pressure on health care systems along the way.

COVID was the leading cause of excess death in Washington State for the week of Aug. 16, beating out heart disease and lung cancer. According to a University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) report, excess deaths due to the virus were 29 per day on average for that week, compared to 20 a day in the week prior. 

UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

According to the New York Times COVID tracker, as of Aug. 27 the seven-day average number of cases was 3,283. That’s nearly on par as the highest peak seen last December. Hospitalizations and deaths are also increasing. Counties in the center and southwest of the state are especially hard-hit right now, including Grant, Lincoln, Franklin, Columbia and Cowlitz counties. 

The state Department of Health reports that 28% of ICU beds were filled with COVID patients during the week before Aug. 15, more than three times the percent seen as recently as mid-July. Although those statistics don’t account for staffed beds, only total beds, meaning actual capacity is likely lower. 

Washington State Department of Health

On top of this, the IHME estimates, only 19% of Washingtonians have gotten the virus. If COVID is endemic, that means there’s a lot of ground for the virus to make up in the state. 

That will become a problem later this fall and into the winter as the virus stresses the state’s health care systems. The IHME expects that between 30% to 59% of ICU beds could be occupied by COVID patients by the end of September, as shown below. 

UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

Looking forward, the IHME ran models for how the pandemic could play out over the next few months. It depends on a number of variables, like how quickly governments respond to high levels of transmission, and rates of mask use. In its best case scenario where everyone masks up, COVID cases could peak almost immediately, and return to levels seen over the summer. 

In the worst case scenarios, where social distancing and mask use aren’t implemented, the state could be in for death counts at levels twice as high as previous peaks. And even in the reference scenario, which assumes vaccinations distribution will continue as projected and mask use will continue at the same rate seen over the prior seven days, the state would still be in for peaks on par with last winter. 

Here’s some charts to think about:

UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

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