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Kootenai Health preparing for a surge in kids needing to be hospitalized for COVID-19

An emergency department sign is shown Sept. 10 at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene.  (Associated Press)

North Idaho pediatricians are recommending universal masking in schools, distancing and other safety protocols as the number of children testing positive for the virus continues to increase statewide and in the region.

They are also asking parents to vaccinate their children 12 and older to protect themselves and the community.

While kids and teens getting severe COVID-19 is less common, it’s not impossible.

“There are kids being admitted (to the hospital) with severe symptoms and requiring lots of care,” said Dr. Jeff Shirts, a pediatrician at Lakeside Pediatrics.

Kootenai Health does not have a pediatric intensive care unit, but staff members are preparing to expand their capacity to accommodate young people who need to be hospitalized with the virus.

Dr. Vanessa Carroll, pediatric medical director at Kootenai Health, said hospital teams are preparing for a surge in pediatric COVID patients in case it is necessary, following the reopening of schools with no mask mandates. The hospital can have up to 15 pediatric inpatients with COVID-19 at maximum capacity, although the hospital has already flexed capacity and could likely do it again.

Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center has the region’s only pediatric intensive care unit. Carroll said if the level of care a child needs exceeds what they can do, patients are transferred there.

In Spokane County, there are about two to three pediatric patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at a time, Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez said on Wednesday. The all-time high was six pediatric patients hospitalized with the virus at once.

While hospitalizations remain low for kids and teens, COVID-19 can still be a serious diagnosis, pediatricians said Wednesday.

Shirts said he has seen an increase of kids with COVID-19 with more symptoms.

“Kids coming in with COVID are sicker longer, with symptoms that last 10 days or longer,” Shirts said.

Kids can also get long COVID, and pediatricians described some kids with mental fog or fatigue that lasted well beyond 10 days of symptoms. Kids who get COVID-19 are also at much higher risk for developing heart inflammation, much more so than if they receive the vaccine.

In the Inland Northwest, cases in young adults and kids have increased in the past month. Since Sept. 3, 27% of Spokane County’s new cases have been in people under 19 years old.

There are 330 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in Spokane hospitals and Kootenai Health, including dozens in critical care units.

At Kootenai Health, which is normally licensed for 26 ICU beds, there are 43 COVID-19 patients in the critical care unit.

North Idaho is in its third week of crisis standards of care, and even with 100 additional staff members from federal staffing agencies and a Department of Defense team, resources are stretched thin as the ICU has expanded and hospital staff are doing nontraditional jobs to keep operations running smoothly.

In Spokane County, hospitalizations have decreased slightly in the last week, but hospitals remain incredibly tight due to staffing challenges.

On Wednesday, Secretary of Health Umair Shah requested additional federal assistance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The state health department requested more than 1,000 health care and support personnel from the General Services Administration earlier this month, but Shah asked HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra for even more support.

“I am concerned that the current stress on the health care system will last for the foreseeable future and could worsen before it gets better,” Shah wrote in his letter.

Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and MultiCare Deaconess Hospital are among the handful of hospitals that will be prioritized to receive staff support when the contracted workers are dispatched from the General Services Administration.

Here’s a look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 232 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday and two additional deaths.

There have been 827 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 218 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 125 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.

There are 118 Panhandle residents hospitalized for the virus.

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.