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Latest COVID-19 Surge Has Idaho Hospitals Tipping Toward Crisis Mode

An employee gives instructions for self-administering a COVID-19 test to a patient in their car in the parking lot at Primary Health Medical Group's clinic in Boise, Idaho.
Otto Kitsinger
Associated Press File
In this Nov. 24, 2020 photo an employee gives instructions for self-administering a COVID-19 test in the parking lot at Primary Health Medical Group's clinic in Boise, Idaho.

Idaho’s hospitals are seeing COVID-19 surges that are approaching levels reached last winter, when the state nearly activated crisis standards of care. That’s the step that allows them to decide which patients are prioritized for life-saving medical measures when resources are scarce.

“The hospitals are completely stressed and in many cases overwhelmed and seeking assistance from state and federal resources,” said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, public health administrator at Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, during a media briefing Tuesday.

The state is making requests to the federal government to alleviate hospital staffing challenges, but it’s gotten early indication that those requests may not be fulfilled because of surges in other states.

Shaw-Tulloch said Idaho’s crisis standards of care committee is meeting later this week to review protocols, should the state need to activate that plan. Some hospitals could be at crisis standards of care levels in two weeks, if current trends continue, Shaw-Tulloch said.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Idaho ICUs is nearing the record set last December, and the total number of patients on ventilators is already higher, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn.

Already, Idaho health systems are cutting back normal services like certain elective surgeries to make room for more COVID patients.

Patients are waiting in the emergency department for “prolonged periods of time” before they can get an open hospital bed, Dr. Jim Souza, the chief physician executive at St. Luke’s Health System, said earlier this month.

A quarter of patients in St. Luke’s hospitals have COVID-19. In south central Idaho, hospitals have frequently been diverting people to other facilities for ICU care, according to the health district in Twin Falls.

And projections by state health officials have case counts and hospital admissions outpacing anything Idaho has experienced during the pandemic thus far. Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner presented a model which shows Idaho could see roughly 30,000 cases per week in October — about 4,300 per day. The most cases recorded one day so far is 2,298 on Dec. 9 last year.

“It looks like it could be a very grim winter for us, at least a grim fall,” Turner said.

Health officials said vaccines are still the best tool the state has to avoid worst-case scenarios. Less than half of eligible Idahoans are fully vaccinated, compared to nearly 60% nationwide.

State data shows unvaccinated people in Idaho were hospitalized for COVID-19 13 times more than vaccinated people since May 15.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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