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‘We Can’t Staff Up for a Pandemic Every Day All Year’
Friday, August 20, 2021


St. Luke’s is opening a makeshift ICU in Boise as COVID-19 patients fill St. Luke’s and other hospitals throughout the state.

But that’s only part of mounting a response to a surge that is as bad as doctors saw last winter before vaccines were available.

There are only so many intensive care doctors, and the best care comes from those who are used to taking care of those types of patients, Dr. Laura McGeorge told reporters during a briefing Thursday.

St. Luke’s will do everything it can to take care of a patient, added McGeorge, medical director of primary care for St. Luke’s System. But this new space wasn’t built to be an ICU. And the hospital is having to find extra ICU doctors, ICU nurses and respiratory therapists “to fill a space that we never meant to have.”

Public health officials in Idaho have reactivated a crisis standards of care task force as hospitals place a record number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators. That means physicians may be forced to choose which patients to treat if patients begin to stack up at the doors of the emergency rooms and ICUs.

And it may affect St. Luke’s Wood River’s ability to send patients to Boise or Twin Falls for trauma and other care, as well.

“We know that a certain percentage of the new positive cases—and we got more than 1,200 in the state yesterday-- will result in hospitalizations, said Carmen Jacobsen, chief operating officer/CNO of  St. Luke’s Wood River.

Making matters worse, COVID patients stay in ICUs longer than other patients.

McGeorge said St. Luke’s is getting calls from as far away as Arkansas and Louisiana from hospitals looking for beds for patients. The overwhelming of those in Idaho’s critical care are COVID patients and the overwhelming majority of those are unvaccinated.

“It’s really hard on our staff because we’re tired. We had hoped we were on the home stretch this summer. But now we’re opening up an additional ICU and nurses taking extra shifts,” she said. “We can’t staff up for a pandemic every day all year.”

Outside Boise, 35 percent of the patients in St. Luke’s Magic Valley are COVID patients. And Coeur d’Alene’s Kootenai Health has cancelled elective surgeries as it fills with COVID patients—half of those between the ages of 18 and 60.

St. Luke’s Wood River has been getting one or two COVID patients per week over the past several weeks, even as it remains busy with surgeries, broken bones, heart attacks and other issues, said Jacobsen.

One woman said she was told she’d have to go to Boise for an induced birth due to staff shortages in the maternity department. That is something that happens on rare occasions, Jacobsen said, although the hospital tries to avoid it. It is not related to the COVID surge.

St. Luke’s Wood River is prepared to assist hospitals in our region and across the state, just as others  assisted Wood River when it had to cut back services because of staff shortages in the early days of the pandemic, Jacobsen said.

“Given the projections and trends, we are increasing our readiness to activate the surge plans,” she added.

The age of those hospitalized with COVID is significantly lower now than last winter because the older people who tended to be the sickest early in the pandemic are vaccinated and have some protection from the Delta variant, whereas the majority of young people don’t have any protection right now, McGeorge said.

And the Delta variant is significantly more contagious. Those infected with earlier variants might infect two people. Those who get the Delta variant can infect at least six people. And, if each of those infects six people, it spreads rapidly.

As a result, people need to take precautions, even in outdoor settings. That prompted St. Luke’s to scale back its Fit One fun run in September to virtual only.

“You’re within a foot of someone talking to someone and, yes, you can spread the virus that way,” McGeorge said. “If you can smell someone’s breath or someone sneezes or coughs, you’re breathing their air.”

McGeorge pleaded for Idahoans to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others and to preserve beds for those who might suffer the heart attacks and strokes that continue to happen, COVID or no.

“What is striking to me is seeing what they’re doing in the hospital to respond to this and then walking out seeing things going on as if there was no pandemic,” she said. “I am completely confident things are going to get worse before they get better.”

The CDC and various Ob-Gyn organizations are strongly recommending that those who are pregnant or intending to get pregnant be vaccinated. Women who acquire COVID while pregnant are at significant risk for serious illness and death. And COVID appears to be causing premature birth.

“The most effective vaccine is the one that’s in an arm,” McGeorge said. “We just have to get more people vaccinated.”

McGeorge also recommended that people get their flu shot to help tamp down the chances of hospital beds filling up with flu patients or worse—people that are infected with both flu and COVID.

St. Luke’s won’t have flu vaccines available for another month—about the time many Wood River Valley residents will likely be rolling up their sleeves to get a COVID booster.

“If you’re getting a vaccine’ you can get the two of the same time,” McGeorge said.


Those from out of the valley who test positive or who are hospitalized with COVID while here do not show up in the reported coronavirus numbers or dashboards, Carmen Jacobsen says. So, even though Blaine County’s vaccination rate of 87 percent has been high enough to merit national acclaim, residents should take precautions against COVID activity in the Wood River Valley.

Blaine County has recorded 11 new cases of COVID since Wednesday for a total of 2,496.



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