This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma

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Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called in the National Guard. With area hospitals and emergency rooms having reached crisis levels due to COVID-19 and the rapid spread of the omicron variant, he had no choice.

The situation is grim, the governor suggested, and the service men and women who will now be deployed to hospitals and testing sites in nonmedical roles across the state in hopes of alleviating the crisis are much needed.

The truly scary thing? He’s exactly right, and he’s not the only one saying it.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the dystopian nightmare we’re now seeing play out still remains hard to fathom. Emergency rooms are overflowing. Hospital staff were burned out months ago; now, many doctors and nurses are infected with the virus and getting sick. As the stress on our fragile health care system ripples outward, patients in need of things like cancer surgeries, heart valve replacements and other crucial but nonurgent procedures are once again being told they’ll have to wait.

As Inslee said, “Hospitals and doctors have told us that their systems really are now in crisis.”

Earlier this week, it’s a message the members of the Washington State Medical Association and the Washington chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians delivered to The News Tribune editorial board in equally urgent fashion. Together, the two organizations recently sent a letter to Inslee and Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah calling for several emergency steps to be taken, including asking the governor to enlist the help of the National Guard to ease staffing shortages and outlining steps they believe will help speed the discharge of a backlog of patients who are no longer in need of acute hospital care.

Jarringly, Dr. Nathan Schlicher, the regional director of quality assurance for Franciscan Health System Emergency Departments and Dr. C. Ryan Keay, president of the Washington chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, also told The News Tribune that the situation is so bleak that it’s time to consider allowing asymptomatic hospital staff infected with COVID-19 to return to work early as long as they’re caring for those who are also sick with the virus. In fact, at some hospitals it’s already happening, Schlicher said. (Let that sink in for a moment.)

So what’s the clearest takeaway — for this editorial board and the general public?

When a group of doctors shows up looking like they’ve seen a ghost and says that the situation is dire — and worse than it’s ever been since the coronavirus took hold — the only sensible option is to listen.

Speaking to The News Tribune, Schlicher didn’t mince words. Donning his white lab coat, even via Zoom, he laid out the current stakes in local hospitals and ERs, and the news wasn’t good.

Across Franciscan’s eight regional hospitals, Schlicher said that — as of Tuesday — there were more than 360 COVID-19 patients currently occupying inpatient beds. Additionally, Schlicher said there were “almost 180” patients in need of inpatient beds who were currently being boarded and cared for in emergency rooms or other temporary locations.

All of this, Schlicher noted, comes after Franciscan hospitals have already canceled “essentially all of our elective surgeries and procedures” — as Inslee also ordered statewide on Thursday — and “aggressively worked on getting folks out of the building” in hopes of stemming the tide.

“We saw a week ago that this was exploding across the state and reached out to the governor because we recognized that despite all the work we could do inside of our walls and inside our buildings, that fundamentally it wasn’t necessarily going to be enough,” Schlicher said. “The challenge is that this is so much worse (than previous waves). I think it’s human nature for everyone to say, ‘Hopefully it’s not any worse than the last time,’ and it’s just unfortunate that we have to be the ones saying it really is that bad.”

Following Inslee’s announcement, Schlicher welcomed the news. The deployment of the National Guard will provide immediate help to hospitals that need it, he said, as will efforts to speed up patient transfers to other facilities.

Still, Schlicher cautioned that the days and weeks ahead won’t be easy.

“We’re going be in the thick of it,” Schlicher said. “Before we’re back to fully flying normal operations on any given day — like it was in February of 2020 — I think we’re probably months out.”