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Idaho veterans, Boise VA battle an unusual ‘enemy’ — coronavirus — and ask public to help

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 11, 2020

By Jacob Scholl Idaho Statesman

Veterans Day is a time to remember those lost in America’s many conflicts and honor those veterans who are still with us.

In Boise, hundreds of Idahoans usually line the streets for the city’s Veterans Day parade on the first Saturday in November. Ceremonies, memorials and other events take place around the Treasure Valley to honor those who served, who sacrificed their personal well-being to protect Americans and others around the globe, while safeguarding their freedoms.

But not this year.

There will be no parades or mass gatherings to acknowledge veterans, another unfortunate result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, many veterans will find themselves quite alone, and those in poor health could face a grim reality.

At the Boise VA Medical Center, where the COVID-19 toll is fierce, the outbreak has caused limiting the number of people allowed inside the hospital. If a hospitalized veteran dies, they die without family or friends by their side. A hospital staffer can facilitate video calls so that the veteran and his or her family can say their goodbyes — the best possible scenario given the circumstances.

Like most other hospitals in Idaho, the Boise VA is trying to keep up with the rising number of COVID-19 cases. The VA hospital recently paused its cardiac catheterization lab for heart-based procedures. It also has limited outpatient primary care, as well as operating room capabilities, according to Dr. Andrew Wilper, the chief of staff at the Boise VA.

Wilper told the Statesman that Idaho’s large number of coronavirus cases is reducing the VA’s ability to care for its patients. As of Monday, 46 VA staffers were not at work after testing positive for the coronavirus or needing to quarantine because of a possible exposure. Another 13 VA staffers were deployed to the Idaho State Veterans Home to help with its staffing shortages, as a second wave hits there.

The reduction in available staff strains the remaining hospital workers — around 30% of whom are veterans themselves.

“This is an enemy, and the way you fight it is not with your rifle. You fight it by wearing your mask and distancing, by incurring those difficulties, incurring those hardships, making those sacrifices,” said Josh Callihan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and public affairs officer at the Boise VA.

Wilper joined Idaho Gov. Brad Little and spoke during a press conference on Oct. 26 as the governor announced the state would move back into Stage 3 of reopening. Wilper, a physician specializing in internal medicine, said then that the unchecked spread of the virus has killed more people in the United States than the past five flu seasons combined.

“Soon we will have more dead (in the U.S.) due to COVID-19 than combat deaths in World War II,” Wilper said.

He and Little pleaded with Idahoans to wear masks, physically distance and remain vigilant against the virus. Idaho health districts continue to report alarming new case counts and hospitalizations, even as many Idahoans continue to flout the heavily suggested safety measures and oppose mask mandates.

For his part, Little wrote an op-ed this week urging people to do better.

“In addtion to offering prayers and kind words to our veterans on Veterans Day, make this minor sacrifice: help slow the spread of this dangerous virus by keeping your distance from others, wearing a mask, and washing your hands frequently,” the governor wrote.

“Our veterans need us to get tough and put up with these minor inconveniences for a relatively short period of time so they can have a fighting chance against the COVID-19 enemy that is rapidly advancing on them. … Let’s use the freedom our veterans earned for us and choose to do the right thing to protect them from COVID-19.”

Boise VA psychiatrist recalls his virus experience

The Boise VA has dealt with the coronavirus since the moment it reached Idaho, as two of the state’s earliest cases were a VA staffer and his wife.

Alan Hines, a 53-year-old psychiatrist at the VA and a U.S. Army veteran, and his wife attended a mental health conference in early March and returned to work shortly after. The two began to quarantine after his wife tested positive His positive result came shortly after.

Hines recalled to the Statesman his anxiety surrounding the positive tests, as he later determined that he could have spread the virus to 28 other VA staffers, 10 patients, a nearby family watching the Hines home and his parents, both in their 70s.

Fearing his patients might catch the virus, Hines said he called each one to notify them of the exposure. He recalled one particularly distressing call — an older patient who was immunocompromised, for whom catching COVID-19 could be a death sentence.

“I’m sorry,” Hines recalled telling the man. “He said, ‘No worries, it’s not your fault.’ He was compassionate towards me.”

Hines said he was thankful that none of the people he was near caught the virus from him. After dealing with symptoms for weeks, Hines and his wife recovered from the illness. He was thankful to have access to the level of health care the VA can provide.

That same level of care is being strained, he said, as an increasing number of Idahoans are hospitalized.

Coronavirus as the “enemy”

Earlier this week, hundreds protested in Twin Falls when the City Council considered implementing a mandate on masks. Many Idahoans across the state have resisted and ignored both suggested and required measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks or limiting the number of people at social gatherings.

That irritates Josh Callihan.

Callihan said the country would react very differently to the coronavirus if it had a face or was treated like an enemy combatant killing Americans.

“At this point in time, there have been over 200,000 Americans killed by this disease. If we interchange the word ‘disease’ for ‘enemy,’ that gets a military guy like me fired up,” Callihan said. “If this was the Taliban doing this, would you abide by it? Of course not.”

Callihan said it seems to be lost on people that the coronavirus is killing fellow Idahoans and Americans, and that this is a cause worth fighting for. He resists the notion some propagate that those killed by the coronavirus were going to die anyway because of preexisting conditions.

“Think of it in terms of Americans being killed by an enemy,” Callihan said. “I can’t stand for that.”

Many military veterans who fought to protect the many rights afforded to Americans are the same people who are among the most vulnerable, Callihan said, and following simple, basic guidelines is not enjoyable, but it is your duty to do so in times of peril.

Callihan, Wilper and Hines all said they hope that this Veterans Day people will keep that in mind. The best way to honor and protect those who have served and sacrificed is to think about others before yourself: wear a mask, wash your hands, stay in if possible, stay distanced when you are out.

“That is how we fight this enemy. It’s not as fun or sexy as getting your gun out and going to war, but that’s how we do it,” Callihan said. “That’s how we beat this enemy.”

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