An unusually early and severe flu outbreak, plus an array of other infectious diseases, has filled Pierce County hospitals to capacity, resulting in a shortage of beds, crowded emergency rooms and long waits for patients seeking care.
“We’re seeing an unusually high number of patients,” said Dr. Christopher Kodama, medical vice president of clinical operations at Tacoma’s MultiCare Health System. “We’re essentially at 125 percent higher than expected for this time of year.”
The MultiCare and Franciscan health care systems, operators of Pierce County’s largest hospitals, report that in the past two weeks a surge of patients has forced administrators to move patients from filled hospitals to less-crowded ones, put extra beds in rooms that usually are private and at times keep patients in common “transition areas” — rooms that hold as many as 15 beds separated by curtains.
MultiCare’s Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup has been particularly crowded, Kodama said, requiring that some newborns be moved to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center in Tacoma to free up beds at Good Sam.
Emergency department visits at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma are averaging 150 per day, up from an average of 140 in December, said Mary Ragsdale, the hospital’s associate vice president.
“This is not just happening at St. Joe’s, and it’s not just happening in Pierce County,” Ragsdale said. “Hospitals up and down the I-5 corridor have had an increase in patients, a decrease in available beds and more use of temporary bed locations.”
Health care officials stressed that no sick people are being turned away from local hospitals, and they said the quality of care has not decreased.
“We’re very busy,” Ragsdale said, “but our quality of care is not in any way jeopardized. We’ve ramped up our system to handle the increased demand.”
St. Joseph is the Franciscan system’s largest local hospital, with 361 patient beds. Other local Franciscan hospitals include St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor, St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Enumclaw.
MultiCare’s largest hospital is Tacoma General, with 437 beds. The MultiCare System also includes Allenmore, Auburn Medical Center, Mary Bridge and Good Sam.
Hospitals in the Northwest typically experience a surge of patients in the winter. Their boom time usually runs from February through March. But this year’s surge is extreme, Kodama said, accounting for the heaviest hospital use since the so-called swine flu pandemic of 2009.
“It’s happening earlier,” he said, “and we’re looking at the busiest season still coming up.”
Most of the current demand is attributable to seasonal influenza, which hit earlier and harder than it has in recent years, according to Nigel Turner, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s communicable disease division director.
But other respiratory diseases also are factors, Turner said, including RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages and is a major cause of respiratory illness in young children.
Another factor, Turner said, is an increase in severe diarrhea cases caused by the highly contagious norovirus.
Tacoma’s poor air quality in recent days also has been a factor in the rush of admissions, Turner said.
High amounts of ultra-fine particulates in the air, trapped by a persistent temperature inversion system, prompted the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to order a Stage 1 burn ban for Pierce County on Jan. 12. The ban was increased to a more restrictive Stage 2 ban Thursday.
“Anytime we have poor air quality, that can exacerbate a lot of conditions,” Turner said.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693