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“We’re Exhausted": COVID-19 Surge Pushes Idaho Hospitals And Health Care Workers To Their Limits

A nurse at St. Luke's Health System looks over a COVID-19 patient in a hospital room, seen through a window to the room.
St. Luke's Health System

A surge in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients is straining Idaho hospitals, and their staff.

“I come to you today in what really is the most extreme health care delivery situation the state of Idaho has ever experienced,” said Dr. Steven Nemerson, the chief clinical officer at Saint Alphonsus Health System, during a media briefing Thursday.

Idaho hospitals are admitting more COVID-19 patients than ever before. At St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus, about 95% of those patients are unvaccinated. Nemerson said 99% of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit are unvaccinated, and the hospital hasn’t had any vaccinated patients with the virus die.

Saint Alphonsus’ predictive models show this surge, fueled by the Delta variant and low community vaccination rates, is not peaking yet; patient numbers are projected to increase through the month of September.

“We are not even close to the worst,” said Dr. Richard Augustus, the chief medical officer at West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell. “And that scares us because we went into this to care for people, to help people, to save them. And we can't. It feels sometimes like we're rearranging chairs on the Titanic.”

Local hospitals are at the most extreme side of “contingency care,” said Nemerson. That’s one step before crisis standards of care, which Gov. Brad Little said Idaho is “dangerously close” to this week. That means they’re pushing the limits of normal staffing ratios, prioritizing patients who come into the emergency department based on how sick they are, shuffling staff from various units to critical care teams and delaying some time-sensitive procedures.

“It's time to expect that things are going to be different when you need health care for this short-term foreseeable future,” Nemerson said. He suggested people prepare to be able to care for themselves at home. That may mean having a thermometer, a pulse oximeter and a blood pressure cuff on hand.

Still, he stressed, people who may be experiencing emergencies, including symptoms of heart attack or stroke, should come to the emergency room for treatment.

As long as Saint Al’s is able to care for patients requiring a higher level of care — such as in the intensive care unit or an operating room — they won’t require activating crisis standards of care, Nemerson said.

Dr. Frank Johnson, Chief Medical Officer for St. Luke’s Health System in Boise, Elmore and McCall, said he was struggling with what else he could say to convey the gravity of the situation inside the hospital walls, which the health leaders agree is largely preventable if more people had chosen to get the vaccine.

Johnson got emotional on the call when he started to talk about the sacrifices health care workers on the front lines are making during this time.

“We’re exhausted, our teams are tired, they’re worn out. And we need some help. We need some help from our communities to turn this around,” he said.

Help, the hospital officials said, would look like more people getting vaccinated, wearing face masks and avoiding large gatherings.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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