Despite the fact that COVID cases are on the rise, with 1,524 new cases as of Sept. 7, and 227,068 in total, along with 2,411 deaths; Idaho’s vaccination rate is only at 39.3% and that’s led to a huge upsurge in COVID related hospitalizations. So many that, as of Aug. 31, Saint Alphonsus paused all non-emergent surgeries and procedures, St. Luke’s also opted to do the same on Sept. 1 and as of Sept. 2 there were only four ICU beds left statewide.
This crisis has led to more than just problems with hospital availability. A group of 29 health care groups penned a letter asking Idahoans to help with the current surge, the Department of Health and Welfare announced COVID funding to hospitals and free standing urgent care clinics for staffing and equipment needs, Gov. Brad Little announced the activation of the National Guard, and the Boise VA Medical Center has opened its doors to civilians.
“It’s never happened in Boise before to my knowledge,” said Boise VA Medical Center Chief of Staff Andrew Wilper. “It’s unprecedented; we’ve never accepted non-veterans before. We’re a medium-sized hospital and we’ve expanded around a third. We’re dealing with everything on a daily basis — there are so many more acutely ill patients. I do expect the next several weeks to be a challenge.”
The VA opened the doors to civilians Friday, Aug. 27 as part of a fourth mission action that responds to disasters in the community. Although the VA has been helping the state with testing for over a year, the new numbers made it clear more help was needed. According to Wilper, they had only accepted one patient as of Wednesday, Sept. 1 — but he expects that number to rise as well.
This falls in line with a letter written by local health care groups expressing their alarm. They preface with the fact that they are, as a group of professionals, very overworked and that the Delta variant is incredibly contagious:
“It is more contagious than the common cold, seasonal flu, or Ebola. On average, people infected with the Delta variant will spread the infection to five to eight other people. This is almost as contagious as chicken pox. Infected people go to their homes, to work, or to school, and may spread the infection before they even realize they are positive. Sometimes an infected person has no symptoms, yet still spreads the disease. The latest data shows that the test positivity rate in Idaho was 13.2% and climbing. As of Aug. 31, approximately 543 patients in Idaho were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 and 167 of those patients were in the ICU with confirmed COVID-19. Perhaps most discouraging is the fact that approximately 97 COVID-19 patients in Idaho were on a ventilator, the highest recorded number at any time during this pandemic.”
The letter goes on to recommend vaccination. “We don’t want to see you in the ICU. We want to see you live your life. On behalf of the health workforce in Idaho, we are asking for your help.”
The Governor’s activation of the National Guard would help local hospitals and healthcare workers and also help the VA indirectly by alleviating the stress on those hospitals. The cause of the influx of cases is due to the low vaccination rate and Gov. Little said in a press release that “Idaho hospitals are beyond constrained. Our healthcare system is designed to deal with the everyday realities of life. Our healthcare system is NOT designed to withstand the prolonged strain caused by an unrestrained global pandemic. It is simply not sustainable. Please choose to receive the vaccine now to support your fellow Idahoans who need you.”
According to Wilper, the VA vaccination rate is about the same as the state’s overall rate.
“We’re probably about at the community rates,” said Wilper. “Older Vets are getting vaccinated more than younger ones. We have a surplus of vaccines and even a way to deliver them but uptake has been disappointing.”
In regards to community crowds and masking, i.e., upcoming shows and festivals, Wilper said that it’s scientifically known that masks reduce the spread so wearing masks indoors will help limit the spread. He also said outdoor events are safer than those indoors and, at large gatherings, an enforcement of testing should mitigate the spread. He also said that large crowds are worrisome and it could push Idaho further into a surge. (The VA had already discontinued elective care operations due to pandemic patients.)
“I think I would like Idahoans to recognize that their individual choices about whether to mask or vaccinate are affecting others,” said Wilper, “and it’s directly leading to hospitalization and deaths here and around the country.”