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Younger, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients fill ICU at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center

KING 5 goes inside a Harborview intensive care unit where staff are treating people in their 30s and 40s with severe forms of COVID-19.

SEATTLE — Just after lunchtime Tuesday, the focused calm of the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle was interrupted by a rush of action.

A team of paramedics, nurses, technicians and doctors whisked in a patient in his 40s, already on a ventilator, whose condition worsened.

“Now we're seeing almost only younger people," said Dr. James Town, medical director of the medical ICU at Harborview. "We're seeing people from their 30s to their 50s, more than 90% of patients. In fact, I think all of the patients in our hospital now are unvaccinated patients."

Town was halfway through his 12-hour shift, and about 17 months into a pandemic that is now revealing cruel rhythms.

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“The number of cases that we diagnosed in the community will pick up, and then about a week later we start to see more hospitalizations, and then about a week after that is often when we start to see an uptick in the mortality rate,” said Town.

That's where his team is now with the rise of the delta variant: Increased hospitalizations and rooms full of patients struggling to breathe.

UW Medicine counted 59 COVID-19 inpatients throughout its system Tuesday. They still have space at Harborview and can make more, but that is not anyone's goal.

“It's going on what will be two years, and so I don't know that there's an end in sight," said Shelby Elizaga, a registered nurse who works in the ICU. "I think right now we're all holding our breaths."

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Elizaga said she and her colleagues are leaning on one another to get through the more demanding days.

“We just want to continue to provide the best care, and it's what we do every day, but some days it's really taking a mental toll on all of us,” said Elizaga.

For some, the difficulty comes from knowing many of the grave cases in this latest chapter of the pandemic could have been avoided.

“People who should otherwise be in the prime of their lives, who don't really have medical problems, are coming in with COVID, and very severe forms of it,” explained Town.