The COVID-19 surge in Idaho has peaked. But hospitals are still crowded.

The coronavirus has gone from a full-blown statewide outbreak, to hot spots that keep Idaho hospitals stretched thin.

By: - October 21, 2021 11:42 am
Health care worker holding a patient's hand

The Idaho Capital Sun has interviewed more than a dozen Idaho health care workers about what they’ve seen during this fourth surge, on the front lines of the war with COVID-19. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

Idaho’s top public health official had some good news, and some not-so-good news, in his weekly briefing to Idaho media Tuesday.

While several hospitals are behind on reporting their COVID-19 numbers, the Idaho Capital Sun’s analysis of weekly data also found Idaho’s trajectory is a mixed bag.

The good news: The delta surge has peaked

Idaho’s data “indicates that it is likely that Idaho has reached the peak of this current surge in cases,” said Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen. “The positivity has declined for the past four weeks, and the number of new cases has started to flatten out. And there are encouraging trends in the hospitalization data.”

Idaho’s rolling average of COVID-19 hospitalizations last week was 615 patients, down from a high of 759 just a few weeks ago, Jeppesen said. There has been a similar decline in ICU admissions and patients on ventilators, he said.

The not-so-good news: The health care system hasn’t caught a break

The downward trend of hospitalizations and test positivity rates is a sign that the current surge is losing steam. But that improvement is relative; the starting point was Idaho’s worst public health and hospital crisis in modern history.

More than half of Idaho remains unvaccinated, and it’s unknown how many Idahoans have adequate post-infection immunity to the coronavirus. That’s keeping emergency rooms busy and hospital beds filled.

The latest numbers mean “that generally, for the first time since July, things are headed in a better direction,” Jeppesen said. “It also means that we are not out of the woods yet. One month ago, crisis standards of care was activated statewide, and remains in effect today. … The number of COVID-19 patients continues to exceed the healthcare resources available.”

Emergency rooms continue to see more COVID-19 patients than ever before, in some of Idaho’s rural communities and in hot spots such as North Idaho.

More than half of Idaho’s ICU patients have COVID-19, and ICU beds remain full in many of Idaho’s larger hospitals.

Things are getting better. Why is Idaho still in crisis standards? 

The Sun asked Director Jeppesen why Idaho hasn't moved out of "crisis standards of care" triage mode, when the number of Idaho COVID-19 patients is now lower than it was at the time he activated crisis standards.

While the statewide totals might be decreasing, that doesn't tell the whole story, he said.

"The number of patients in hospitals, particularly up north and here in the Treasure Valley, is actually higher than when we went into crisis care," he said.

That means patient-to-nurse ratios are still high. That keeps nurses and nursing assistants from having enough time to provide a normal level of care. That could mean skipping a patient's daily bath, or admitting patients to medical floors who normally would be in the ICU, hospital workers have told the Sun.

"And what we're really looking for is those boxes that were checked (that showed a need for crisis standards), that they get unchecked coming out," Jeppesen said. "So, I'll give you an example. When we went into crisis standards of care, one of the factors was space. We were seeing patients that were being housed and treated in non-traditional spaces, areas of the hospital."

Those spaces included a classroom, surgery units, and even outpatient clinics. Those overflow units are still in use, he said.

"So we will be looking for some of those things to go back to within the normal footprint of the hospital, just like they were before ..." Jeppesen 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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