Same song, new verse: Idaho hospitals take on more COVID-19 patients

Most patients are hospitalized for the coronavirus disease, not just ‘with’ it.

By: - January 11, 2022 2:20 pm
Photo of Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise

Boise’s Saint Alphonsus hospital is the trauma center for the region. Its emergency department, medical units and ICU are strained once more as COVID-19 cases increase again. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The number of people in Idaho hospitals with COVID-19 is once again climbing, as the omicron variant takes hold. Idaho hospitals reported more than 350 coronavirus patients over the weekend, up from the mid-200s a week earlier.

New patient admissions are on the rise, too, among adults and children.

An average of more than six children per day were admitted to Idaho hospitals with COVID-19 last week, according to federal data. That’s up from a maximum of two children per day over the holidays.

“This is very much like the beginning of the pandemic again, and this time, it’s going to flatten us quite honestly, and we need to be prepared for that,” Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System, said during a media briefing last week. “And the same measures that we’ve been talking about for a long time are the ones that are going to protect us …”

The omicron variant has proven itself a worthy foe of immunity from vaccines and from prior SARS-CoV2 coronavirus infections. But even with a growing number of “breakthrough” infections, the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 patients at St. Luke’s, Idaho’s largest hospital system, are unvaccinated.

That health system’s data show that most of the hospitalizations are for COVID-19, not simply an incidental positive test in a patient admitted for another reason.

Does this mean another hospital crisis for Idaho?

“I hope to God that that doesn’t happen again,” Nemerson said, of the risk of entering crisis standards of care. “But I’m afraid it may … because our resources are more constrained, our flexibility is less, and functionally that means we’re going to be able to care for fewer patients. So we’re likely to need to go into crisis standards of care sooner with this surge” than during the delta-fueled fourth surge in fall 2021.

More than 1% of Idahoans tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks, according to data collected by the Idaho Division of Public Health.

That is likely a drastic undercount, based on Idaho’s rapidly accelerating positivity rate, which reached 17.1% last week. Public health experts say a community’s positivity rate shouldn’t exceed 5% if there is adequate testing to catch new infections. Access to coronavirus testing has faltered in Idaho and nationwide, and many home tests are never reported to official sources.

Idaho public health agencies are working through backlogs in test results. The Idaho Division of Public Health estimated what Idaho’s case rate would look like, if positive tests were being reported as they come into health agencies. (Courtesy Dr. Kathryn Turner, Idaho Deputy State Epidemiologist)

Local medical providers have announced the need to temporarily close some of their urgent care clinics, largely due to staffing challenges.

Nemerson said last week that Saint Alphonsus had gone from 14 employees out on leave related to COVID-19 in late December, to 125 out last week. “That’s going to have very dramatic implications in our ability to take care of patients, obviously,” he said.

Three Saint Alphonsus urgent care clinics will be closed weekends, according to a news release from the health system Tuesday:

  • Emerald Street in Boise
  • Wythe Creek Court in Kuna
  • Karcher Road in Nampa

These locations will remain open every day of the week to receive patients who would normally visit the closed clinics:

  • Lake Hazel Road in Boise
  • Meridian Health Plaza on Cherry Lane in Meridian
  • Garrity Clinic on Sister Catherine Way in Nampa

The health system didn’t provide an end date for the temporary weekend closures.

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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, data visualization and more.

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