Idaho health officials warn of ‘grim’ fall and winter, at risk of care rationing

State health officials said Tuesday that Idaho is near record high rates of COVID-19 hospitalization

By: - August 17, 2021 4:55 pm
Idaho State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn talks about Idaho's COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Idaho State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn talks about Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout during a media briefing in April.

When she’s out grocery shopping in the Treasure Valley lately, Dr. Christine Hahn sees fewer people in masks than she did last fall.

As Idaho’s top epidemiologist, it worries Hahn to see Idahoans acting like the COVID-19 threat has passed, when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

She and other state officials warned Tuesday that Idaho is headed for a hospital crisis. They pleaded with Idahoans to get vaccinated and continue to use masks and social distancing as a way to protect themselves and others.

“The surge is driving our projections upward to about 30,000 cases per week by mid-October,” said Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist. “This is beyond what we saw last winter, when our cases peaked in December.”

They’re also projecting the number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions to be “as high as 2,500 in a single week,” which is higher than the winter surge.

“Given our current trajectory and rate of vaccination, and the current variant circulating, it looks like it could be a very grim winter for us, at least a grim fall,” Turner said.

New cases of COVID-19 in Idaho have gone from 3.4 per 100,000 people to 30 per 100,000 in a matter of weeks, officials said.

Data obtained and analyzed by the Idaho Capital Sun have shown that severe illness from the coronavirus is filling hospital beds faster than at any time during the pandemic.

There were 121 people in Idaho ICU beds with COVID-19 over the weekend — about 41% of the staffed adult ICU beds in the state — according to federal data submitted by hospitals.

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“It’s very concerning that we are seeing this now” before school starts, before flu season arrives, and while there are large gatherings happening in Idaho, said Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch.

The state’s committee for “crisis standards of care” is once again meeting to discuss the possibility that doctors, nurses and hospitals may be forced to decide which patients receive life-saving care.

“The hospitals are completely stressed,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

Idaho hospitals are saying that, on this trajectory, they may reach crisis standards of care in as little as two weeks, she said.

“We’re seeing health care professionals leaving the profession to do other jobs because the stress and demand has been so high,” she said. One hospital in North Idaho has 500 job openings it needs to fill, she said.

Hospitals have been asking the state for staffing help, and the state in turn has asked for help from federal sources.

But officials are hearing “it’s going to be tough to get any federal resources because we’re seeing this ubiquitous surge and (some states have) higher hospitalizations,” she said.

“We have to, as a society, figure out the best way to stop the flow of patients coming into the hospital,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

Hahn said she wants to “get the message out on how worried we are, and how serious we think this is,” because too many Idahoans seem to think the situation isn’t dire. Vaccinations and other layers of protection, such as masks, are the best tools to keep Idaho from crisis, she said.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more.

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