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Healthcare

Seattle Doctor Says Unvaccinated People Are Testing Healthcare Workers' Resiliency

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Seattle, the reality of the current COVID-19 surge is pretty grim. With the delta variant everywhere, hospitals again are reaching their limits. Nonemergency surgeries are being put on hold. Well, we have been checking in on Washington periodically as the first state to confirm a case of the coronavirus back in January 2020. And we've been checking in with Dr. Sachita Shah. She's an emergency physician at Harborview Medical Center there in Seattle.

Dr. Shah, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Good to talk to you again.

SACHITA SHAH: Thank you.

KELLY: I'm remembering when you and I last spoke, it was September 2020. I mean, I guess I'll start by asking, did you expect by any stretch that we would still be in the thick of this nearly a year later?

SHAH: No. I was thinking back to when we last spoke yesterday, and I was so hopeful that we would get a vaccine and that it would be accepted and that we would be really out of this mess and just doing what we normally do - take care of trauma patients all summer because everyone was out having fun. And we are definitely not in that situation...

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAH: ...Unfortunately.

KELLY: And just describe the emergency room these days. How full are you? Do you have supplies you need? Do you have enough beds?

SHAH: We don't have enough beds. We have a severe nursing shortage that is not just us. This is countrywide. I think watching people suffocate with COVID all year and then having half of the American public reject the vaccine has been really hard on health care worker resiliency. And so we are full. It's not full of COVID, though. We are full because we are a regional trauma center and burn center and a tertiary care center, so we're full of all kinds of patients. And so to be full while looking at this, you know, these numbers doubling every week of COVID patients just is a little bit daunting.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAH: I've had wait times in the emergency department of 30 hours, which has been unheard of in my career.

KELLY: What are those conversations like - when people come in, they've got COVID, they are sick enough to be admitted, and they're telling you they're not vaccinated? I'm just - I'm trying to square that with what you're telling me about the understandable burnout for poor people working at your hospital. And I'm guessing those conversations must be really hard.

SHAH: Yeah, I have to say it's getting a lot harder to not ask, well, why? Like, why would you not have accepted this? This could have been prevented. And so it's - I have asked a few patients, well, why wouldn't you have gotten that? And I've heard varying things - well, I thought I already had COVID. That was a common one. And, oh, I thought it wouldn't be this bad. And I don't know if it's that folks are not understanding how truly horrific - when people get really bad COVID, it is like suffocating. I think young folks thought that they were fine, but the delta variant is the whole 'nother ballgame.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAH: And everyone is at risk. And the people that are vaccinated, they may get sick. They may not have symptoms. But the people that are unvaccinated, everyone might get this, and the hospital's already full.

KELLY: Anything else you've learned, having been at this for so long?

SHAH: I think we've learned a lot about the symptoms that people present with, but that doesn't really make it any less scary, and it doesn't mean that we have better treatments. We have more treatments that we could possibly use, but our heart-lung bypass, for example, has been full for a year and a half, and it's been really hard on our ICU team to turn down referrals every week - 10 referrals, 20 referrals - for these lifesaving machines because we've run out. The system is at capacity. And we can surge. We will do it. We will try to make something out of nothing. But I really feel like if people haven't been vaccinated, they really need to get vaccinated. I have had some nurses who had family members who were not vaccinated, and they just - they've gone to them and said, I can't watch you die like this. Like, if for nothing else, please do this for me because I will lose my marbles if I have to watch a family member suffocate. It's been too much.

KELLY: That is Dr. Sachita Shah, emergency physician at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Good to speak with you again. Thank you.

SHAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.