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City In Washington State Drives Hospitalizations Down In Coronavirus Battle


NPR is looking at hospitals around the country that are at risk for reaching capacity due to rising coronavirus infections. On Tuesday, we highlighted the situation in Boise, Idaho. Today we visit Yakima, Wash. Yakima's only hospital got overwhelmed in June and had to send patients hours away for treatment. The community took action and brought hospitalizations down for now. Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: On a busy stretch of road here a couple hours east of Seattle, a green park is lined with about 8,000 red flags. On each one is a black silhouette. It's a way to represent the toll of coronavirus. Leola Reeves helps set them up.

LEOLA REEVES: As you look towards the end, we have to salute to those who did not survive. They are the black flags.

STONE: There about 200 of those. Reeves' stepfather, Bill, was almost one of them. The 70-year-old caught the coronavirus in late spring and spent two weeks in the hospital.

REEVES: My mom got the phone call. What are his final wishes? And that was hard.

STONE: Until then, this community of about 250,000 hadn't seen a crush of patients like Seattle. But the virus was picking up speed, sweeping through long-term care facilities, sickening farm workers and spreading uncontrollably in the community. Reeves knew the health care system would be strained.

REEVES: That was one of my major concerns, of course, when it first happened. You know, was he going to have to get sent off to Seattle or anything like that? Luckily, that did not happen.

STONE: But it might have, had he been hospitalized a few weeks later. By mid-June, Yakima was considered the epicenter of Washington's coronavirus outbreak. Dr. Tanny Davenport is with Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital in Yakima, which has over 200 beds. He says on one day they even had to transfer 17 patients hours away to the other side of the state.

TANNY DAVENPORT: Seventeen is an all-time record. We have never had anything close to that number ever in our history.

STONE: Yakima was vulnerable to coronavirus. In January, the city's only other hospital closed.

DAVENPORT: Our critical care beds went down from 24 to 11. So now you throw COVID on top of it, that really was a strain.

STONE: An NPR analysis shows Yakima has one of the worst ratios of hospital beds to people with coronavirus infections in the country. The hospital doubled its ICU beds and retrofitted entire floors. Davenport says the biggest challenge wasn't only physical space.

DAVENPORT: We had beds, but what we didn't have was the team members to safely take care of those patients.

STONE: It seemed the health care system was on the brink, about to be overrun. But so far, that hasn't happened, partially because of timing. Coronavirus hit Yakima hardest while other parts of the state had the virus under control. That meant hospitals in Seattle had room to take care of patients.

DAVENPORT: And that was really our saving grace. If that would have happened with everyone else being overwhelmed, it would have been a much different story.

STONE: It wasn't just good fortune, though. The community took action. Around Memorial Day weekend, a survey showed only about 35% of people here were wearing masks. Lilian Bravo is with the Yakima County Health District.

LILIAN BRAVO: Without a specific metric, without a goal, it was really hard to motivate people, especially in an area - in a time when there is a lot of misinformation, a lot of mistrust.

STONE: They launched a public awareness campaign, enlisted the support of businesses and blanketed the community with free masks. Six weeks later, mask use was at 95%. Cases have come down. The hospital has more room. And Yakima is looking like a success story. But a lot of tests are still coming back positive now. Back at the park, Leola Reeves stands next to the black flags memorializing those who have died with coronavirus.

REEVES: We've actually been doing great success in lowering our numbers by wearing masks and by social distancing. We are finally starting to succeed.

STONE: She hopes soon they won't have to stand up many more flags. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone
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