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Need more evidence of climate change, Idaho? Look no further than the ER.

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rtf, St. Luke's
Dr. Ethan Sims (lower left) is an ER physician at St. Luke's and heads Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health. Stephanie Wicks is manager of sustainability and environmental compliance for the St. Luke's Health System.

Dr. Ethan Sims spends many of his days and nights in the emergency rooms of St. Luke’s Health System. He also heads Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health.

Sad to say, he and his colleagues in Idaho and across the globe see too many links between climate change and health care crises.

“In Idaho specifically, we see impact from extreme heat and wildfire smoke, and air quality degradation,” he said. “Globally, I think the problems are a bit more diverse.”

With so much to be overwhelmed by, Stephanie Wicks, manager of sustainability and environmental compliance for the St. Luke’s Health System remains optimistic.

“I think people are worried about it and don't know what to do about it. And I try to lean on the hope side of things. People are doing things. Companies are doing things. The government is doing things. And we can all, one-step-at-a-time do our part.”

Just prior for the St. Luke’s-sponsored webinar, “Wildfire Smoke and Human Health,” Sims and Wicks visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice.

“So, we have the solutions. We just need to have the willpower to implement them.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. On a week where President Biden is signing into law a huge bill that is expected to supercharge the clean energy industry, we often talk about climate action and very broad strokes. This morning we make it personal. In fact, today St Luke's Health System is hosting a virtual event and the name of the event is “Wildfire, Smoke and Human Health.” Dr. Ethan Sims is an emergency department doctor at St Luke's. In addition to his clinical duties, he heads the Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health. And Stephanie Wicks is the manager of sustainability and environmental compliance for the St Luke's Health System. She has worked on global sustainability efforts with her time at HP; and her degree from the University of Utah is a Bachelor's of Science in Chemical Engineering, in addition to her MBA from Boise State. .

DR. ETHAN SIMS: Good morning.

STEPHANIE WICKS: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Dr. Sims, could you give us a sense of what you see… and the real impacts of climate change on patients that may end up in an E.R. or even hospitalized?

SIMS: Of course. Thanks for the opportunity to have this conversation. I think that in Idaho, we see primarily are impacts from extreme heat and wildfire smoke and air quality degradation. Globally, I think the problems are a bit more diverse. We see wider expansion of infectious diseases that are transmitted by insect vectors, whose range is expanded by the changing climate - things like Lyme disease that didn't use to be in Minnesota, but now the tick vector has made its way to Minnesota. So, we're seeing cases of Lyme disease as far west as Minnesota, things like extreme heat…all cause mortality. When London had their severe heat wave about a month ago, there were about 850 deaths above expected for that day in London. Just related to the heat, the effects of the changing climate are difficult to exactly pin down because it's such a complex issue. But here in Boise, we see increased admissions for heat exhaustion, cardiovascular disease, dehydration, kidney problems. And of course, during wildfire season, we see a lot of asthmatics and people with COPD and emphysema who are acutely ill. Interestingly, we are also seeing delayed effects. There was a great study from the University of Montana a few years ago that looked at cases of influenza pre COVID and documented that 4 to 8 month after a bad wildfire season, we were seeing significantly more and more severe cases of influenza causing increased hospitalizations. One of our speakers at this upcoming talks, Cecilia Sorensen, did a study in Colorado that demonstrated that with an increase in tenfold amount of air particulates, they were seeing about 25 to 50% increase in their ICU admissions. So, this is a major problem that's happening now.

PRENTICE: So, when we see those air quality alerts - those orange days or possibly even those red days, we've had a couple of those in the last few years - that's really serious.

SIMS: Absolutely. And it's something that really the most vulnerable in our communities really need to be paying attention to. So, people with existing lung disease, young children, older patients, pregnant women, these are the people that are most directly impacted by these kind of air quality conditions. But we see it in our regular day to day life as well. My 12-year-old can't go to soccer practice because the air quality is too poor to go outside and practice. And last summer we had nearly two weeks of soccer practices canceled because the fire was so bad. If I tried to go for a mountain bike ride last summer when the heat was high and the air quality was terrible, I'd feel bad for a few days after. So, I think though, the most vulnerable are the most likely to be impacted severely. We're all impacted by this.

PRENTICE: Stephanie Wicks, I am fascinated by your work in the private sector, previously navigating businesses and regulators, and now with St Luke's. What is the “secret sauce” of getting a business or a governmental entity to try to do better when it comes to environmental change? How do you get them, quite frankly, to do the right thing?

WICKS: Well, George, I think from my experience, you start the conversation with regulations. Regulations are the low bar. I'd say the if you're trying to be in compliance with the regulations or if you're in trouble, you're starting to look at your risk. And where are you? People don't want to be there. Companies don't want to be in that situation. And I think, frankly, they want to be better. I think they do want to be in front of it and they want to better understand it. So that's where you kind of start the conversation is that here's the low bar and here are some best practices and where you can go and start to map out how to get there and build a team. I think it's really about making it relevant to the company and making it relevant to the regulators because regulators want businesses to do the right thing and to be in front of regulations. They don't want to have people get into trouble, but they're there to police it if it if need be. So, they want companies to be proactive and operating at a higher level. So, I think it's about understanding where you are, understanding what the low bar is, what the where you could be. And I'm going to call that the reward or the benefits. Build a team and make it work for both sides.

PRENTICE: I'll ask you the same question - Dr. Sims, you first - Is it fair to say that anyone, let's say under the age of 35, is really engaged on this issue?

SIMS: Yes, without a doubt. I like I mentioned earlier, I have a 12-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old daughter. And this is nightly dinner table conversation for the four of us. I have a friend and colleague at Boise State University, John Pierce, who is going to elementary schools and teaching elementary school kids about climate change and its impacts on the community. The Boise School District has a sustainability board run by a friend and colleague, Chris Taylor, who's doing an outstanding job and engaging with students there. But the organization itself really is student run, and we're seeing students starting green teams as early as in sixth grade that are looking at how their workspace at school can become more green and livable.

WICKS: I am seeing the same thing. I have been doing some industry work with the Boise State Engineering Department, looking at sustainability projects, and I've got all kinds of internship opportunities I'm seeing through universities. I go and speak with high schoolers about sustainability, what I'm doing, the career and how it can change. There's a lot of interest in this from and a lot of discussions, I think, in school as well as just like Ethan said, with my kids, both my kids are concerned about climate, they're concerned about the environment. And I think to some degree you kind of hear about climate anxiety. And I think I think it's a real thing. I think people are worried about it and don't know what to do about it. And I try to lean on the hope side of things. People are doing things. Companies are doing things. The government is doing things. And we can all, one-step-at-a-time do our part.

SIMS: And I think I want to add to Stephanie's point about hope there, because it's easy when you spend a lot of time looking at climate and thinking about what's going on right now to have that despair. But I think the fact that we already have all the solutions to these problems, it's just a matter of having the willpower to put them in place and try things that aren't proven on a large scale yet because they haven't been done yet. And I think green tech really is going to be my kid's generation's biggest employer. Right. So we're going to see a huge transition to a new energy source, a new way of transportation. And these are going to be the jobs of our kids’ future. And I read a study yesterday that said that green tech degrees in college are becoming quickly replacing sort of I.T. work as the major focus for people going into college, because that's where the jobs in the future are. So, we have the solutions. We just need to have the willpower to implement them.

PRENTICE: And Stephanie, St Luke's is right there, right? Is this part of the ethos?

WICKS: We've started in the Environmental Sustainability Department, which I'm leading, and we are working on our own, working on our own carbon footprint, understanding our how we play and joining those conversations with Boise School District, with the city of Boise in the communities that we operate. We've even nationally, we're working with different hospital systems throughout the country, learning from them, learning what the. Best practices are. And so yeah, we're very excited to have these conversations around environment, health and environment, health and climate, environmental, social justice. I think I'm really excited that those conversations are starting to come into one, one room instead of being separate, and we're excited to be a part of that conversation.

PRENTICE: Dr. Ethan Sims is in the ER at St Luke's… and thank you for what you do today and everyday. Stephanie Wicks is effecting change as the manager of sustainability and environmental compliance for the St Luke's Health System. Thank you, Stephanie. And for both of you, thanks for giving us some time this morning.

WICKS: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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