Greatest challenges for St. Mary are beds, staffing, blood supply

January 24, 2022 Kathleen Obenland

By Bruce Dumser, MD, interim CMO

As the number of cases of COVID hits record highs in Walla Walla, I would like to offer an update on Providence St. Mary Medical Center and ask this community to do what it can to protect access to local health care.  In preview, the most important things citizens can do for this community are mask, vaccinate (including booster!), and consider donating blood.

The Omicron variant is more contagious than any we have ever seen before and is impacting Walla Walla deeply. You can track the numbers by going to the Walla Walla Department of Community Health website at The escalation is significant enough that Providence St. Mary recently revisited the protocols that would be used if the hospital became overwhelmed and there were not enough resources to care for everyone, as set forth by the Washington State Department of Health. Gratefully, we are not at that point today.

A lot has been made about the fact that Omicron is milder, to the point that some people seem to be letting down their guard and their masks. The reality is that Omicron is milder for some but not for all. As the number of infected people grows, so does the number of people for whom Omicron is a serious or life-threatening event requiring hospitalization.

The extraordinarily infectious nature of Omicron also is pulling people out of the workforce for sick leave and hindering blood donations.

At Providence St. Mary the number of hospitalized COVID patients fluctuates greatly but on any given day they occupy roughly a quarter to a third of available hospital beds. This increase in patient volumes secondary to COVID, and occurring at the same time as hospital staffing shortages, is resulting in reduced access to elective surgery, procedures and other care.  

These are among our greatest challenges today at Providence St. Mary:  beds, staffing and the supply of blood.

Beds and staffing

Staffed bed capacity is very tight at Providence St. Mary. Across the state there are very few available hospital beds, particularly in intensive care units. This is about both the availability of physical beds and the health care professionals to staff the beds. We are monitoring this very closely and are doing everything possible to maintain beds in our community. 

What this means for the average person is that if you become seriously injured or ill and need hospitalization, there may be a long wait for a bed. We will still provide the best care we can make available, but the level of service may feel different.

Because there are so few beds available in the entire state at any given time, we are only transferring patients to other facilities if there are no other options. If you must be transferred, such as for access to a specialist not available locally in a life-threatening situation, you may be sent to a hospital that is a significant distance away.

You can help by doing everything you can to stay healthy. The best defense against illness continues to be wearing well-fitting masks covering your nose and mouth when you are in public settings, avoiding large gatherings and getting vaccinated. Procedure (surgical) masks, N95s and KN95s offer better protection than cloth masks, bandanas and gaiters. If you become ill, get tested and isolate from others to avoid spreading infection.

You can find COVID testing sites at and vaccination clinics at

Emergency Department

Due to this COVID surge, the Providence St. Mary Medical Center Emergency Department most days is running at or over capacity, contributing to long waits that can exceed three hours.

We are asking the community to reserve the Emergency Department for the most severely ill and injured. If you have a high temperature, are having trouble breathing, experiencing chest pain or have sustained a significant injury, the Emergency Department is the best place to go. If you have a minor injury or illness, please contact your provider or go to Urgent Care instead.

COVID testing is only available in the Emergency Department to people who are being admitted to the hospital. Walla Walla has other COVID testing options that are faster, easier and more appropriate than waiting for hours in an Emergency Department. 

Blood supply

The national blood supply has been declining for the past several years and is now at an unprecedented low, mostly due to fallout from COVID. Most blood products at Providence St. Mary are used for trauma patients, laboring mothers with unexpected bleeding, and patients with severe gastrointestinal bleeding.

We need the community’s help to ensure blood is available when people in this community need it. If you are able, sign up for one of the upcoming American Red Cross blood drives at

Providence St. Mary greatly appreciates the community’s support and help in maintaining health care access as we weather the most recent surge of the pandemic. We got through the Delta surge, and can get through Omicron as well by working together for the good of our community.


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