Idaho warns of COVID patient surge, hospitals ‘overwhelmed’

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Hospitals are reporting record numbers of COVID-19 patients on ventilators, public health officials have reactivated a “crisis standards of care” task force and epidemiologists are warning that based on the current rate of spread, Idaho could see as many as 30,000 new cases a week by mid-October.

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare officials made the announcements during an online news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Public health administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch said they were “extremely alarmed” by the surge.

“Hospitals are completely stressed and overwhelmed and in many cases seeking assistance,” she said.

There are 65 COVID-19 patients on ventilators statewide, just over last winter’s record of 63 patients. Idaho hospitals are struggling to maintain adequate staff levels, as employees get sick or decide to find work elsewhere.

Based on the current infection rate of the highly contagious delta variant, hospitals could have to implement crisis standards of care in as soon as two weeks, Shaw-Tulloch said. Crisis standards are intended to help hospitals direct scarce resources to the patients most likely to survive.

One northern Idaho hospital is struggling to fill 500 jobs, Shaw-Tulloch said. The Department of Health and Welfare is applying for federal staffing help for hospitals, but chances are slim — Idaho is competing against several other states for the Emergency Medical Assistance Compact help.

“The biggest tool we have in our chest, our tool box, is to increase vaccination rates” and encourage people to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines like wearing masks, she said. Vaccinated people can still become infected with the delta variant, but they are far less likely to become seriously ill.

Some primary care providers on the front lines of coronavirus vaccination and testing are also reporting serious staffing shortages.

Primary Health Medical Group’s 21 family medicine and urgent care clinics had 20 staffers out sick on Tuesday, most of them with coronavirus-like symptoms or COVID-19 exposures, said CEO Dr. David Peterman. That is on top of the 43 vacant staff positions the medical group is already struggling to fill.

“We are also seeing record numbers of patients in our urgent care,” said Peterman, who is a pediatrician, “and the volume of phone calls is significantly higher related to coronavirus.”

Previously when coronavirus case loads were high, Primary Health Group had the help of the Idaho National Guard for basic functions like checking in patients. That freed up other staffers to work directly with patients. Primary Health was also able to hire student nurses to help for a time using special federal funds.

The National Guard activation ended in July, the program constrained by federal regulations. However, an announcement by President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday that the federal authorization was being extended through the end of the year suggested that the program could be renewed.

The timing is critical, as coronavirus rates continue to climb and some immune-compromised people seek a third vaccine dose — all during the same time of year when Primary Health Group normally provides about 40,000 influenza vaccinations, Peterman said. Biden’s administration has also announced that all immunized adults may soon be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine booster. Most of those tasks will likely fall to primary care providers.

“There’s so much planning at the federal level — we can’t do it all without understanding how we are going to get the supplies and resources at the federal level to do it,” Peterman said. “By the time it gets to the ICU, it’s too late.”

Shaw-Tulloch said she hasn’t heard from as many physicians’ offices as she has from hospitals that are short on staff, but said the Department of Health and Welfare is leaving no stone unturned in its search to find additional help for health care providers during the pandemic.

Just over 900 additional coronavirus cases were reported to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare on Tuesday — the highest daily new case total since mid-January. There have been more than 210,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in Idaho since the pandemic began, and at least 2,258 of those patients have died of the illness. Roughly 52% of Idaho residents have had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, well below the national average of about 70%.

Rebecca Boone
Rebecca Boone
Rebecca is a correspondent based in Idaho.