What’s behind Harborview Medical Center’s capacity crisis

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On Friday, fire department aid units arrived at Harborview Medical Center, the state’s only level one trauma center, with critical patients.

Less-critical patients, who are transported by private ambulance, are mostly going to other Seattle-area hospitals, like Virginia Mason and Swedish.

The basic life support diversion is because of a capacity crisis at Harborview, which UW Medicine officials announced Thursday.

With Harborview at 130% occupancy, hospital leaders say they have beds in hallways, conference rooms and offices.

So, to make space for new trauma patients, they’re diverting people who don’t need specialized care to other hospitals, which also face capacity problems.

“It’s pretty terrible across all hospitals in the state,” said Cassie Sauer of the Washington State Hospital Association.

The problem is not because hospitals are filled with COVID-19 patients.

Instead, they’re short-staffed and can’t discharge people who should be in long-term care facilities, which are also short-staffed.

Harborview alone has about 100 of those patients.

“It’s a really big deal for hospitals to be this full, and it’s threatening people’s health care access and their health,” Sauer said.

The backlog in getting patients to long-term care has been building through the pandemic.

A July letter from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office says the state has invested over $91 million to expedite discharges.

While patient wait times for long-term care are down 31% since 2020, officials acknowledge efforts have “hit a plateau.”

Harborview last had to divert patients in 2019, but at that time, the other hospitals weren’t so full.