Saturday, September 19, 2020
Health Officials Fight Lies, Offer Key to Success of Reopening Schools
Patrons of The Community Library in Ketchum have taken advantage of the library’s outdoor patios—and its strong Wi-Fi connections—to work outside during the pandemic.
Thursday, August 27, 2020


Health officials are disputing an Idaho’s legislator’s assertation that hospitals are inflating the number of COVID patients they treat to get more money.

Hospitals across the country and locally are actually losing money on COVID patients that end up in ICUs, said Odette Bolano, president and CEO of Saint Alphonsus Health System.

“Are there bad actors in a country with 6,100 hospitals? Maybe,” she told a group of journalists during a virtual roundtable featuring eight representatives of southwest Idaho health care organizations.

“CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and insurance companies audit us all the time and I have not had anyone come back to say we’re inflating or inappropriately coding cases,” she added.

The accusation came during a special legislative session being held this week at the Idaho Statehouse. Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, not only accused hospitals of inflating numbers to get money for COVID-19 but said that wearing masks is a political statement and that even N95 masks are of no value.

“Many of us have spent a lot of our time addressing or trying to correct various conspiracy theories or, frankly, blatant lies or misrepresentations that have been put out there,” said Chris Roth, president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System. “To suggest that hospitals are inflating numbers, it’s pretty disappointing.”

One health official called the sight of more than a hundred protesters forcing their way into the Statehouse, shattering a door in the process and taking their seats without masks and social distancing appalling.

“As we try to reopen schools…what are kids to think?” said Dr. David Peterman, CEO of Primary Health Medical Group. “To me it’s unacceptable.”

Health officials agreed that kids need to go back to school in person. But Ada and Canyon counties are still in the red category, meaning considerable community transmission puts them at high risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and White House. And Primary Health’s testing shows that the positivity rate among school-aged children in the Treasure Valley is 10 percent—more than double what it should be for school to safely reopen.

Blaine County is much better poised for the possibility of in-person or hybrid school due to a much lower rate of coronavirus.

Nine percent of those with COVID are kids, Bolano said.

School boards are in a very difficult situation because there is no clarity about what to do, Peterman said. If a restaurant employee gets hepatitis, it closes temporarily and no one questions it. If a schoolchild gets whooping cough, there are clear guidelines for dealing with that.

“There are no clear guidelines for COVID in school,” he said.

Since June 1 when Idaho began easing COVID restrictions, children between the ages of 5 and 12 have had a positivity rate of 10.2 percent; ages 12-18, 12.4 percent; 18-40, 14.6 percent; 40 to 59, 15.4 percent and 60-plus, 12.9 percent.

In addition to the positivity rate, doctors are concerned about schools having the resources, including hand sanitizer, to reopen safely.

“My concern is also for the teachers,” Peterman said, noting the impact it could have on a classroom if a teacher contracts the virus.

St. Luke’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jim Souza noted an 80 percent increase in pediatric COVID during the last two weeks of July—before schools reopened.

“There’s a false—either/or—dichotomy that either you can neglect safety and do school all-in person or pursue safety doing all online,” he said. “We think there’s an ‘and.’ ”

It’s important to immunize children against the flu, as having flu and COVID at the same time could be far worse than having one or the other, said Peterman. Children have gotten behind on their immunizations since the pandemic started. But hospitals and clinics have created systems to offer immunizations in a safe manner, doctors said.

The good news: Flu rates in the Southern Hemisphere are at record lows this year--something health officials attribute to wearing masks and washing hands.

Souza said the school plans he’s looked at are largely well-conceived. School officials have willingly made adjustments where needed.

“The key to success is how flawlessly those plans are executed,” he said. “I can’t emphasize the need for consistency at every level from the board and administrators to the teachers and students. This is no time to back off. This is the time when we press.”

Souza pointed to Notre Dame and other universities that tried to create bubbles only to have outbreaks due to off-campus parties.

“The flaw is breaks in behavior that allowed the virus to get a foothold and surge,” he said.

As kids go back to school there will be positive cases. It will be absolutely necessary to respond to positives, test the appropriate people and quarantine as needed, Peterman said.

“Parents need to ask schools, ‘What are you going to do?’ And they need to ask, ‘What am I’m going to do to protect other children?’ It’s incumbent on parents to ensure they’re not sending a sick child into school.”

Adherence to the three W’s—wearing masks, washing hands and watching distance—has led to a 50 percent reduction in hospital admissions at St. Luke’s and a 50 percent reduction in the percentage of positive tests since mid-July, said Roth.

“But don’t get complacent with kids going back to school,” he cautioned.

Saint Alphonsus also has seen a decrease in overall hospitalizations, but more patients are in critical care, said Bolano. The hospital is currently caring for 19 patients in its ICU. Thirteen are younger than 50; six are 70 or older.

Blaine County admitted four new patients with COVID to St. Luke’s Wood River Monday and Tuesday.

The positivity rate—the percentage of people who test positive out of all those tested--remains high. It has been high as 18.2 percent in Ada County; last week it was 12.8 percent. It’s been 16 percent in Canyon County.

Idaho recorded 305 new cases on Wednesday after 400 the day before taking it to 30,780.

Idaho has racked up the deaths related to COVID during the month of August. On Tuesday Idaho matched a single-day record with 13 new deaths from the coronavirus. The state recorded 13 on July 31, as well.

The state recorded nine new deaths on Wednesday. The state has lost 337 Idahoans due to COVI.

Blaine County has now had 598 official cases of coronavirus with a moving average of just over three new cases a day in the past week.

Following COVID precautions is hard, but we have to realize the severity in Idaho, said Dr. Richard Augustus, chief medical officer for West Valley Medical Center. The nation was shocked at what transpired in New York City early in the pandemic. Now the same thing is taking place in Idaho, but it’s not making the news because it’s happening so many places.

“We don’t have a lot of capacity to go with a bigger spike than the one we just had,” he said, referring to a recent period where hospitals had to transfer patients to other hospitals.

Souza said there have been no new cases of multi-inflammatory syndrome since the first in Idaho was diagnosed over a week ago. “But I think we will see 70 more cases in the next months, and that’s sobering because it’s life threatening.”



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