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‘We have to do something’: Vaccine-wary North Idaho sets COVID-19 hospitalization record, and new projections are even more grim

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 18, 2021

Kootenai Health.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Kootenai Health. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

For eight long months, the Panhandle Health District’s record for hospitalizations due to COVID-19 was 95 people.

On Tuesday, the record set Dec. 23 fell when the district saw 101 people hospitalized due to COVID-19. On Wednesday, the number fell to 92 hospitalizations.

Such a grim record would be alarming to health care leaders on its own, but there’s a far more unsettling statistic underneath those totals: The hospitalizations are coming faster.

According to a Wednesday news release from Kootenai Health, North Idaho’s largest hospital, COVID-19 hospitalizations during the ongoing surge are increasing twice as quickly as they were during the winter, when many of Idaho’s hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

The hospital has never had more COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU patients than it has right now. But the hospital’s projections suggest the situation will grow much worse in the next two weeks.

Kootenai Health predicts it will have more than 140 people hospitalized in the first week of September and more than 60 people in the ICU.

“The COVID-19 delta variant is replicating and spreading much faster than the original COVID-19 alpha variant,” the news release states. “We are seeing that the delta variant is also leading to more severe illness in a younger population.”

People from age 18 to 60 now make up half of Kootenai Health’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, compared to just 20% during the winter surge.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Kootenai Health’s ICU has risen along with the facility’s overall hospitalization numbers. On Wednesday, 36 people – a record – were in the hospital’s ICU due to COVID-19, compared to just 11 on July 28.

The increase in hospitalizations is stressing Kootenai Health’s resources.

The hospital has canceled elective surgeries and is unable to take patients from other hospitals.

Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks said he’s against mask mandates and mandatory vaccinations, but he thinks the surge the county’s seeing could have been avoided.

“If people choose to go unvaccinated, then they’ve made a choice,” Brooks said. “I respect those rights to make a choice. But I also respect nature to do its number on them. They’re going to win the Darwin Award. We’ve got a vaccine that works.”

Brooks said he doesn’t understand why so many people are refusing to get vaccinated.

“They’re getting COVID by choosing not to have the vaccination,” he said. “This is just simple science, get a vaccination.”

Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer said he tracks the region’s COVID-19 statistics every single day.

“It’s a terrible picture. … I’m just kind of beside myself, to be honest,” he said. “The hospitalizations and the deaths are just so alarming.”

Idaho set a statewide high on Sunday for COVID-19 patients in the ICU with 127, eclipsing the previous high of 122 set on Dec. 18.

Widmyer also noted that Kootenai County has had 14 COVID-19 deaths in August already, compared to just seven in all of July.

North Idaho has to improve its vaccination rate, Widmyer said.

“We have a way out of this, through the vaccine, but we are one of the lowest vaccinated counties anywhere,” he said.

Mandates won’t work in Coeur d’Alene or North Idaho though, Widmyer said.

“The people that want to be safe and are acting in a safe manner are doing so now,” he said. “I don’t see any mandates helping the situation.”

Hopefully, people who haven’t been vaccinated will reconsider, given that the hospital has had to pause elective procedures, Widmyer said.

“Overtaxing the hospital affects everyone’s health,” he said. “I think if people looked out for their neighbors and the whole community, they would see that we have to do something.”

The Kootenai Health news release shared the same plea that hospitals have shared throughout the pandemic: Get vaccinated, wear a mask when out in public, avoid optional large gatherings, practice social distancing and maintain good hygiene. And the news release included another request that has become a common refrain among hospital leaders during the pandemic: Do your part so everyone can have access to good health care.

“It is not our intent to frighten,” the news release states, “but rather to inform our community of what lies ahead if the current trend continues.”

No Panhandle Health District board members could be reached for comment as of press time.

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