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St. Luke’s Wood River Takes Patients from Elsewhere as Hospitals Fill
Sunday, September 26, 2021


Dr. Terry Ahern is used to arranging air transport to hospitals in Twin Falls or Boise for Wood River Valley residents who’ve had a heart attack, stroke or serious car accident.

The director of St. Luke’s Wood River’s Emergency Department is not used to being on the receiving end.

Patients coming from other Idaho hospitals has become a common occurrence in the past few weeks with hospitals bulging at the seams with patients with COVID-19 and other health complications.

“As of yet, we’re not taking COVID patients—they’re trying to keep them together in bigger hospitals because they require a lot of nursing care. But we are taking patients like those with dementia who are suffering from dehydration or infections,” he said.

Idaho became the first state in the nation to enact Crisis Standards of Care on Sept. 16 as hospitals across the state found themselves turning physical therapy gyms and offices into COVID wards and dealing with record numbers of patients in ICUs.

Alaska followed suit a week later, enacting guidelines that give doctors guidance to determine how to allocate ventilators and other resources when there are not enough to go around.

Idaho is averaging more than 1,200 new COVID cases a day, according to Idaho Health and Welfare. And Deputy State Epidemiologist Kathryn Turner said in a press release that that number is expected to rise to 3,000 a day by mid-November.

St. Luke’s Wood River has not been stretched as thin as some of St. Luke’s hospitals, Ahern said.

“But it’s not operations as usual,” added Ahern, who took time out on his day off Thursday to discuss the hospital's situation. “We pride ourselves on providing a really high level of care. But the health system is under significant strain--if you need to come to the ER, you need to set your expectations a little lower.”

About 30 percent of Wood River’s inpatients have COVID, which means the local hospital is not  experiencing the slack right now it would traditionally have, said Ahern.

“We’ve done well as a community addressing COVID because of our high vaccination rates (93 percent of those 12 and older, according to Health and Welfare) and masking policies, but we’re still seeing COVID cases every day from valley residents and residents from surrounding counties,” he said.

To make beds and technologies available, St. Luke’s Wood River has deferred elective surgeries, such as hip and knee replacements and even cancer surgeries. Only emergent or acute surgeries addressing such things as appendicitis, fractures and gall bladder infections are still on the table.

Patients who are being accepted are being transferred to inpatient care, rather than coming to the emergency department.

The hospital has 25 beds with six dedicated for maternity patients, according to Joy Prudek, public relations manager for the hospital. It has recently found itself with more than 20 inpatients, which is significantly above average, according to Ahern.

Even before the pandemic the hospital did not staff to fill all 25 beds, said Prudek. But, given projections, it’s not out of the question that every bed in Wood River will be filled at some time, she added.

Wood River Valley residents are being transferred to other hospitals when they need an ICU bed, which Wood River does not have. But they may not be transferred in the normal 90-minute time frame, even though every minute counts when it comes to optimal outcomes.

“Patients in the emergency room and in the hospital are not receiving the standard level of care they would normally get. They’re not seeing a nurse as often as they would. They’re getting a less than desirable patient experience. They may end up in the emergency department longer than they normally would,” Ahern said.

While the state’s Crisis Standards of Care documents do address “Do Not Resuscitate,” St. Luke’s is not operating under that mode at all, Ahern said.

But news accounts across the state have told of the somewhat chaotic circumstances patients have found themselves in because hospitals are stretched so thin.

KMVT, for instance, interviewed a quadriplegic man from Hagerman this week who described a “warzone” at St. Luke’s Magic Valley in Twin Falls. The man said it took more than 10 hours to be transferred from the ER to a room. The parking lot was packed with all the handicapped spots full. Ambulances and helicopters were revolving in and out. The ER was packed with “incredibly sick people,” including several on oxygen. There were four code blues and three deaths on Sunday alone, he related: “Three out of four floors? COVID,” he added.

While St. Luke’s asked all of its employees to get vaccinated by Sept 1, no one has been fired because they did not receive a vaccine, said Prudek.  In fact, the hospital extended the deadline, recognizing that it was going to need all hands on deck given the surge of COVID patients that started in August.

The hospital is working with those who are not vaccinated to see if it can address their concerns.

Right now nurses may be tending to four or five patients instead of the usual two or three, Ahern said.

St. Luke’s Wood River was short-staffed before the pandemic because of the high cost-of-living and lack of affordable housing in the valley, Ahern said. Right now, there are five trailers parked in the parking lot providing homes for traveling medical personnel. And the hospital is sharing staff with other hospitals in the region.

“St. Luke’s Health System has done a good job of sharing resources,” Ahern said. “The reason we’re able to run Wood River is that we’re getting staff from other places. This is something we will have to address when COVID is over. Our community seems to be growing and health care needs to be growing with it.”

Although St. Luke’s Wood River staff are not feeling as overwhelmed as workers in bigger hospitals, overall morale is not high right now, Ahern said.

“We’re not immune to the rest of the state and the trends of the rest of the state,” he said, noting that Idaho has one of the lowest COVID vaccination rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with just 51 percent of those 12 and older vaccinated.

“More than 90 percent of the patients we have come in on a daily basis are not vaccinated. And more than 98 percent of those with COVID in ICUs are not vaccinated. We’re quite frustrated, especially because this was a largely preventable disaster," he added.

Ahern said he was not surprised to see the state enact Crisis Standards of Care, given how stressed the hospital system was.

“It was a reassuring move….it allows globalization of extra resources. I was sad that the case load has reached this level but happy that the government made that acknowledgement and might provide some extra resources.”

Ahern said he hopes residents will be mindful of the situation in hospitals and do the things that will keep them out of the hospital, including wearing helmets, seatbelts and facemasks.

Thanking health care workers for their service would go a long way right now, as well, he said.

“During the early stages of the pandemic, we got a lot of community support,” he said. “Now, we just need people to help us out by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, washing their hands.”


The state has recognized the toll that caring for those with COVID has taken on front-line health care workers by launching a hotline offering 24/7 crisis counseling and mental health care resources.


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