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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Panhandle Health District reports hundreds of backlogged COVID-19 cases

Kootenai Health photographed on Tuesday, July 21, 2020 in Coeur d'Alene.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

As the delta variant surges and hospitals are reaching their limits, COVID-19 cases in North Idaho are likely much higher than previously reported.

The Panhandle Health District said Friday its backlog is about 1,200 unprocessed cases for the months of July and August.

The district is hoping to have the backlog cleared in about a week, meaning case rates over the next few days will be high.

“They’ll be a bit inflated, but if you think about it, over the last month, they’ve been deflated,” said spokeswoman Katherine Hoyer.

Cases in the five North Idaho counties – Benewah, Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai and Shoshone – have been rising in recent weeks as the delta variant spreads throughout the state. But the situation may be worse than the public data has so far shown.

Since Monday, the district has reported about 400 cases, but with such a significant backlog, “the public doesn’t see the actual situation,” Don Duffy, district interim director, said in a news release.

The backlog is due to a recent surge in cases in the five-county district, staff shortages and demobilization of the National Guard, the district said. During the peak of the last surge, Hoyer said the department had about 12 people processing cases and contact tracing. That number went down to about two during the spring when case rates were so low.

Now, with this “incredible surge,” Hoyer said they need much more help to work through cases. The district has now brought on staff from other departments to assist with clearing the backlog.

One of the biggest issues with such a long backlog and so few people able to work on it, contact tracing does not happen, Hoyer said.

When the team is swamped with cases, they are unable to contact everyone who tested positive in a timely matter and do a case investigation. During that investigation, the district allows those who may have been exposed to get tested and stay home until they receive a negative test.

Without the ability to do that, Hoyer said COVID-19 can continue to spread as people who do not know they were exposed go about their lives.

Despite unreported cases, surges in hospitalizations are being felt across the region, mostly in unvaccinated people.

About 50% of the Kootenai Health hospital staff is vaccinated, The Spokesman-Review reported Wednesday. And about 39% of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated in the Panhandle Health District, according to state data.

Kootenai Health announced Wednesday it was converting a classroom in the hospital to a new COVID-19 care unit. The classroom will have 22 beds and 7 nurses assigned to it.

The hospital reported a new daily high on Wednesday with 96 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, 37 of whom were in critical care, according to a release from Kootenai Health. As of Friday, that number was down to 94 total COVID-19 patients, with 34 requiring critical care.

The decision to add beds was made in expectation of a continued surge of cases and to prepare the hospital for a crisis standard of care declaration, guidelines that help health care providers decide how to deliver care under extraordinary circumstances.

“These can include disasters or public health emergencies when health care systems are so overwhelmed by patients, or resources are so scarce, it is no longer possible to provide all patients the level of care they would receive under normal circumstances,” according to a news release from the hospital.

Crisis standards of care can only be declared by the state, which has the authority to do so for a region or the entire state.

As of Friday, the state had not issued any crisis standards of care declaration.

In an attempt to keep hospitalizations low, Gov. Brad Little on Thursday announced the state would open three antibody treatment facilities, including in North Idaho, to treat people with COVID-19. The decision was an effort to keep those with COVID-19 from getting severely ill and requiring hospitalization, as hospitals continue to be overwhelmed, Little said in a news release.

North Idaho would be the priority as the region has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state and hospitals are overwhelmed, limiting health care for non-COVID patients, according to the governor’s office.

“There are too many unvaccinated people in our hospitals right now,” Little said. “We need to reduce the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations so everyone else can continue to access health care for strokes, heart attacks, car accidents, and other emergencies.”

Little also directed $10 million in federal funds to make more physical space in hospitals, address staff shortages and transition patients out of hospital settings.

Here’s a look at local numbersThe Spokane Regional Health District reported 404 new COVID-19 cases and four additional deaths.

There have been 732 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 210 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane .

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 102 new cases on Friday and no additional deaths.

There are 102 Panhandle residents hospitalized with COVID-19.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.