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Southwestern Idaho back in crisis standards while rest of the state remains in ‘fragile’ situation

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 26, 2022

Ann Enderle, R.N. attends to a COVID-19 patient in the Medical Intensive Care Unit on Aug. 31 at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Idaho. Boise and other parts of Southwestern Idaho are back in crisis standards of care after an explosion of COVID-19 patients.   (Associated Press)
Ann Enderle, R.N. attends to a COVID-19 patient in the Medical Intensive Care Unit on Aug. 31 at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Idaho. Boise and other parts of Southwestern Idaho are back in crisis standards of care after an explosion of COVID-19 patients.  (Associated Press)

Omicron is hitting Idaho’s health care system hard, as staff call out sick with exposures, blood supply runs low and the number of Idahoans testing positive outpaces health districts’ ability to report cases.

On Monday, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen declared crisis standards of care in the three southwestern health districts, including Boise and the Treasure Valley. That means certain types of care may be rationed. He said other districts and health systems are operating in contingency standards of care, and “on the edge” of crisis standards.

“The situation for the rest of the state remains fragile,” Jeppesen told reporters Tuesday. “If current trends continue, I expect crisis standards of care will be activated in different parts of the state.”

The situation in Idaho mirrors what’s happening in Eastern Washington, with explosive case counts and hospitals filling faster than before due to staffing shortages, and in some cases, not enough space. To make things even more tenuous, blood supply shortages have hospitals worried about the potential for rationing it in the future.

“Rationing hasn’t happened yet, but we’re fearful it will,” Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System, told reporters on Tuesday.

The vast majority of hospitalized COVID patients in Idaho are unvaccinated. In the Saint Alphonsus Health System, 80% of COVID patients hospitalized are unvaccinated; 10% are partially vaccinated; and 10% are vaccinated and boosted, Nemerson said.

The number of Idahoans testing positive has overwhelmed state lab and health district capacity, and the number of outstanding tests has grown to 39,000 Jeppesen said.

The Department of Health and Welfare estimated that the actual case rate is much higher than what is being reported due to the backlog. The average positivity rate in Idaho is around 34%, but in some regions, it is upward of 60%, meaning well over half of all people getting tested end up positive.

Hospital capacity in the Inland Northwest continues to be stretched as Eastern Washington contends with its omicron surge. Hospitalizations in Spokane County continue to increase as well.

Idaho declaring crisis standards of care again could impact Washington hospitals, Taya Briley, executive vice president at the Washington State Hospital Association, told reporters.

Hospitals like Pullman Regional Medical Center that sit on the state line are already taking some patients from Idaho. Pullman Regional is getting three to five calls per day from facilities in Idaho and Washington asking to transfer patients, said Jeannie Eylar, chief nursing officer at Pullman regional.

“We’re trying to balance getting these people the surgeries they’ve been waiting for months and trying to be good neighbors,” Eylar said.

She said so far the rural hospital has had space to accommodate many of these patients from Gritman Medical Center in Moscow or St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, and she expects those hospitals to feel the ripple effects of what’s happening in southwestern Idaho soon.

Hospital association leaders fear that if the surge gets worse in Idaho and Eastern Washington, it will impact Western Washington hospitals as well, which has been the case in previous waves.

As of Sunday, there are 2,249 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Washington.

Here’s a look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 830 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and no additional deaths.

Health officials are still experiencing high case data that may lead to delays and backlogs. Additionally, the state’s lab reporting system was scheduled to update Tuesday, leading to fluctuation in data reporting.

There are 180 patients hospitalized in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District reported 372 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths. There are still 4,313 backlogged cases, however, indicating that case rates are likely much higher in North Idaho.

There are 96 Panhandle residents hospitalized, and Kootenai Health is treating 84 COVID patients.

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.

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