Gov. Brad Little announced Tuesday that Idaho hospitals are approaching a crisis point where medical care may not be available to everyone, with only four adult ICU beds available in the entire state.
The solution, Little said, was simple. Idahoans need to get vaccinated. Only 48.6% of Idahoans and 44.18% of Panhandle residents 12-years-old or older are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to state data. That’s compared with the national rate of 61.3% of Americans 12-years-old or older who are fully vaccinated.
“Please choose to receive the vaccine now to support your fellow Idahoans,” Little said. “They need you.”
Little said that the unrelenting toll of the recent COVID-19 surge has forced Idaho on the brink of activating statewide crisis standards of care. That level of crisis would mean people needing hospital treatment could receive a lesser standard of care or be turned away all together.
In essence, Little said, someone would have to decide who gets treated and who does not.
Katherine Hoyer, spokesperson for the Panhandle Health District, said that hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are higher in the district than ever before in the pandemic. Even more troubling, hospitalizations increased at a faster rate than last year’s winter surge.
“That is really concerning,” said Hoyer regarding how fast this surge, largely driven by the delta variant, has overwhelmed hospitals.
The Panhandle Health District has three ICU beds left as of Tuesday. Case rates that have also gone up in the Panhandle in recent days, may be due to a backlog of cases .
Little pointed to data showing that COVID in 2021 has mainly affected unvaccinated Idahoans; 98.9% of new cases, 98.6% of hospitalizations and 98.7% of deaths since Jan. 1 are among the unvaccinated, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
The governor said he was heartbroken when he toured a nearly full ICU ward in Boise on Monday night.
“I was told the average age of the patients was 43,” said Little. “All of them struggling to breathe.”
Little did not mention plans for statewide mask mandates. Little signed an executive order banning “vaccine passports” to receive public services or access facilities in April.
Little announced several initiatives to increase health care capacity at hospitals. Idaho added 370 additional personnel to help hospitals – 220 federal medical and administrative staffers, and 150 members of the National Guard to aid with logistical duties during the current surge.
A 20-person medical response team from the Department of Defense will come to North Idaho, where Kootenai Health continues to treat record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 patients and where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the state. The team, all Army personnel, will include physicians, respiratory therapists and nurses.
Kootenai Health is treating 97 COVID-19 patients, the most ever, with 35 of them under critical care. Since the beginning of the most recent surge, Kootenai Health has found that 97% of patients hospitalized with coronavirus are unvaccinated.
Last week, the hospital converted a classroom into a ward for COVID-19 patients and had four coronavirus patients die in a 36-hour period. They expect the surge to continue to escalate, according to a Kootenai Health news release.
Three monoclonal antibody treatment centers will also be opened in Coeur d’Alene, metro Boise and Pocatello to attempt to treat people with COVID-19 before they need to go to the hospital.
Finally, Little announced initiatives to add more nurses to the workforce, like allowing inactive nurses to return to work without paying licensing fees and fast-tracking nursing students to graduation.
But the overwhelming message from the governor was that more Idahoans getting vaccinated was the only real solution. For now, he hopes the additional health care workers will be enough to avoid a triage crisis.
“I hope and pray it will be enough for us to avoid statewide crisis standards of care, but we are teetering on the brink,” said Little.