Sunday, April 18, 2021
St. Luke’s Employees Reflect on Struggles, Successes During Pandemic
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“Heroes” signs were planted at each of St. Luke’s hospitals, including Wood River, in the early throes of the pandemic.
   
Saturday, March 13, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

GRAPH BY PAUL RIES

There was a cautious hint of optimism in the air Friday as St. Luke’s health care workers paused to reflect on a year of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

But we’re in a race as we press ahead to a world when COVID isn’t staring us in the face, said Dr. Jim Souza, St. Luke’s Health System’s chief physician executive.

 
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Remember how empty the streets of Ketchum were as people were ordered to shelter at home?
 

“It’s variant versus vaccine,” he said.

St. Luke’s embarked on 24 hours of reflection Friday to honor the 1,900 Idahoans who have lost their lives from COVID, the more than 7,000 Idahoans who were hospitalized and the 173,000-plus who contracted the virus.

The community is invited to join by ringing bells, and chimes and sounding sirens at noon today—Saturday, March 13. Then, people are invited to step outside their doors and howl in gratitude for health care workers at 8 tonight.

Souza said the observance is to honor those who died, their families and the nurses and others who chose to be with them in their final hours.

 
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Blaine County recorded no new cases on Friday for the first time since Feb. 20, according to Paul Ries. Idaho reported 364 new cases of coronavirus on Friday for a total of 174,610 cases. The death toll held steady at 1,906. Blaine County’s numbers held steady at 2,201.
 

“It was a shared experience. We were with those people when they died. We tended to their bodily functions, held their hands, connected them with family, often through audiovisual devices,” he said.

Moving through the period of remembrance means moments of tears,” noted Dr. Frank Johnson, a medical officer with St. Luke’s

“We’ve lost some members of our health care community. We’ve all lost friends. I hope there will be a lot of pride taken by staff members who really have gone above and beyond,” he said.

“So many health care workers across the globe--the price they paid for stepping up,” added Dr. Michaela Shulte, another chief medical officer.

Among those who stepped up was Will Thomas, a respiratory therapist. He said he was caught off guard by the amount of death he saw. He also contracted COVID, which has left him with residual effects, including a dry cough.

“I was a good long runner. I’m a short runner now,” he said.

Amy Slott, a bedside nurse, recalled how she cared for at least one and sometimes two COVID patients every shift. But in the last few weeks she’s had only one COVID patient.

Erika Johnson, a registered nurse, said she didn’t get to see very many people walk out of the ICU.

“As a nurse I felt pretty helpless that I couldn’t do enough to help or save them. I remember the anxiety, the fear. Typically, patients in ICU have support from family. And these patients were entirely alone.”

Souza said he was shocked by the way some people who doubted the seriousness or the reality of the pandemic failed to value the lives of those who died from COVID-19.

“Yes, a lot of those were older people. But it was shocking to me when I would read letters to the editor or social media that said everyone has to die some time.”

Dr. Joshua Kern recounted how St. Luke’s Magic Valley took in patients from the Wood River Valley when the pandemic started and sent physicians to the Wood River Valley to help staff the ER. Then it had to send patients elsewhere in fall when it was deluged with COVID patients.

He said conspiracy theories that downplayed the virus were destructive to workers’ ability to control the pandemic and that disinformation about vaccines has to be throttled.

Erika Johnson agreed: “Anti-maskers and all that been pretty difficult. It’s infuriating and disheartening. In my 10 years of nursing, I felt very respected in the community, and I don’t feel like anyone’s listening anymore. And I worry that those will be our next patients. I think of people who have lost a family member seeing these masks burning and I wonder how they feel.”

SILVER LININGS

The pandemic had its silver linings as it taught health care workers things about respiratory illness that they can use to stem deaths from cold and flu in the future, Souza said. Scientists have learned more about vaccine technology and that antibody treatment can work. And telehealth is now here to stay.

“This has changed St. Luke’s. It’s changed health care. We’ve learned we can move quickly. We can be agile. We’ve learned we can innovate. We changed policies multiple times daily sometimes,” he said.

But Souza said he is worried that some health care workers who were already experiencing burnout before the pandemic might retire early because of the trauma associated of dealing with community members and leaders who thought that the pandemic was not real.

“We’ll have some people leave, which is bad,” he said, adding that he was surprised by the tidal wave of disinformation that has surrounded COVID-19.

Souza praised health care workers who answered the call even though initially they didn’t know how the virus was transmitted, how to mitigate it, what treatments there were or how long it would take to get a vaccine.

“They stepped up at a time when even their own safety was in question due to national shortage of PPE. They stepped up at a time when it was hard to step up because the public and some of our leaders not behind them. And then provided a bridge between sick patients and their families,” he said.

LOOKING AHEAD

Souza said he’s cautiously optimistic going forward. Idaho’s daily numbers of new virus cases are averaging between 280 to 290. That’s 25 percent higher than at the end of the last surge in September, which means that any surge could start at a higher level.

And variants could add fuel to the fire.

“But I’m hopeful any increase won’t result in an increase in hospitalizations and deaths because of how many of the vulnerable have gotten a vaccine,” he said.

Souza said he thinks we will see a significant expansion of asymptomatic testing in the weeks ahead as “a significant portion of getting out of this.”

That’s because vaccinations mitigate the severity of the disease but it’s not known for sure whether the vaccinated can transmit the virus.

Shulte recounted how privileged she felt to get a vaccine.

“I remember being in a long line for the vaccine, knowing we were among the first even on the planet to receive this vaccine,” she said. “That was history in the making and incredibly emotional. That cannot be underestimated, giving sense of safety I feel as we move forward.

“It’s been wonderful to see that humans can move mountains when we put our minds and our hands together and move in the same direction,” she added.

Dr. Sindy Byington of St. Luke’s Magic Valley agreed: “Over last year seen a lot of losses, a lot of heartbreaks, but the vaccine has given us a lot of hope. It’s a chance to take a breath finally. We were going at full speed 110 percent of our energy for a long time. Now, we’re beginning to see light at end of tunnel. But we’re not there yet.”

Souza concurred: “Don’t throw in the towel yet. Don’t have a mission accomplished moment yet because we haven’t accomplished the mission yet. “

“I hope people will slow down just a little bit and not be in a total rush to get back to normal,” he added. “You have to remember that what got us here was normal. So, if we think that magically this won’t happen again and we go back to normal, we won’t have learned anything.”

St. Luke’s Health System Stats Over the Past Year:

  • Number of total COVID-19 tests
  • Total ordered tests – 220,551
  • Number of total positive COVID-19 tests
    • Total Positive Test Results – 26,559
  • Number of total COVID-19 hospitalized patients
    • Distinct COVID Positive Patients hospitalized – 2,982
  • Number of total COVID-19 deaths at St. Luke’s
    • Total COVID related deaths to patients while admitted - 344
  • Number of COVID-19 vaccines administered
    • Total vaccinations (Initial & Booster) administered as of 3/10/2021 – 73,623

 

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