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News >  Idaho

Idaho’s coronavirus surge overwhelms primary care clinics

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 11, 2020

By Rebecca Boone Associated Press

BOISE – Idaho’s unchecked spread of the coronavirus has become so overwhelming in some areas that medical care providers are struggling to even answer all the phone calls from would-be patients, a health care executive said Wednesday.

Dr. David Peterman, the CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, said the company’s 20 clinics normally get about 1,800 phone calls a day. But with the pandemic raging in southwestern Idaho, the clinics are now getting 3,000 calls a day.

Meanwhile, he said, nine Primary Health care providers and 38 staffers are out because they are sick or in quarantine. Six clinics have had to close at various times in recent weeks because of low staffing.

In Idaho, like in many states, basic precautions intended to slow the spread of the virus – like wearing masks and social distancing – have become politicized.

“We are at the point where I can’t tell you for sure we can answer your phone calls,” Peterman said. “Regardless of what political party you’re in, you need to be able to see your doctor. I’m telling you, our clinics are being overwhelmed – if we cannot answer our phones, we cannot take care of our patients.”

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reports more than 77,000 Idaho residents have been infected with the virus – including a record high 1,693 new cases reported Wednesday – and at least 733 have died. Statewide, the average number of daily new cases in the past two weeks has increased by more than 34%, according to numbers from Johns Hopkins University. One in every 209 people in the state tested positive for coronavirus in the past week.

Much of the national and local focus has been on hospitals being overwhelmed. St. Luke’s Magic Valley hospital in the Twin Falls region had to temporarily divert intensive care unit patients to Boise on Tuesday night, as well as turn down requests to take new patients from a hospital in Elko, Nevada.

The Nevada hospital turned to Idaho for help after Utah hospitals were unable to take the patients. St. Luke’s Medical Center hospitals in the Boise region were also busy and nearing capacity on Wednesday, St. Luke’s spokeswoman Anita Kissée said on Twitter.

But the pandemic’s strain on health care systems goes far deeper than emergency rooms and hospital beds. Currently, one out of every three people coming into Primary Health clinics for coronavirus testing is positive for the virus.

“It should frighten all of us,” Peterman said of the virus numbers. “It’s easy to look at TV, and say, ‘I’m not in the intensive care unit, my grandmother’s not in the intensive care unit.’ But if I say to you your doctor cannot treat your child with an ear infection, because I cannot answer your phone call, or your doctor is on quarantine, or our clinics are full with people with coronavirus?”

Peterman said his clinics are a clear example: “We are being overwhelmed.”

Earlier this week, Idaho Gov. Brad Little again urged Idahoans to wear masks, wash hands and practice social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. But he has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, instead leaving the decision to regional health districts.

The districts are led by boards, often made up of county commissioners, laypeople and one or two medical professionals each. Ten of Idaho’s 44 counties and 10 cities have issued mask mandates.

“I’m asking our political leaders to take action,” Peterman said. “I support them, I’m not trying to make it difficult for them. I’m a pediatrician, and I have no political agenda. I take care of your children, and to protect you, to protect your children, to protect us, we need to acknowledge how serious it is. This virus is out of control.”

Peterman said leaders should require masks, take steps to limit people crowding together and limit extracurricular activities for kids.

“Schools, frankly, have been relatively safe, and there isn’t good data to say that necessarily the spread comes from the schools. But when you look at the extracurricular activities – and parents, relatives, friends – those interactions are concerning,” he said.

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