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As COVID-19 case numbers soar, Idaho hospitals face staffing shortage

BOISE — A rising tide of COVID-19 cases is straining health care facilities across the United States.

In Treasure Valley hospitals, a major spike in COVID-19 cases means shortages of nurses, physicians and certified nursing assistants, a trend that is already cutting what kind of health care patients can receive.

Since Oct. 1, the St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems, the largest in Idaho, have both seen a spike in COVID-19 patients needing treatment at their facilities. Saint Alphonsus has a daily average of 60 COVID-19 patients in its system, which is double the average it saw during Idaho’s second spike in July. In St. Luke’s Health System, a daily average of 20% of hospitalized patients have COVID-19, a number that has been rising since early October’s lows of 6%.

Brie Sandow, director of St. Luke’s Enterprise Resources Staffing Center of Excellence, said the recent COVID-19 surge and its accompanying infections among caregivers and support staff had knocked more employees out of work than at any other point during the pandemic. St. Luke’s has stringent health policy rules for its employees so they can avoid exposing others to their illness. If an employee has symptoms of illness, they don’t come to work, Sandow said, and the hospital has now gained the testing capacity to run a 24-hour turnaround on COVID-19 tests for its staff members.

“They don’t come back until their symptoms are resolved,” Sandow said.

“I can say today … we have more staff out with COVID than we have had at any other time since March,” Sandow said Thursday.

Saint Alphonsus has been dealing with staffing issues for the past month and a half. Jennifer Misajet, the vice president of operations for Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, said higher levels of community transmission have stressed its staffing across the board.

“We are experiencing colleagues taking leave in all areas of our health system; doctors, nurses, support staff and non-clinical personnel,” Misajet wrote in an email. Saint Alphonsus has continued to hire new staff as well, adding 300 employees from July to September, including 70 new nurses. During that hiring spree, Saint Alphonsus retrained 123 nurses to move into critical roles, Misajet said.

Brian Whitlock, president and CEO of the Idaho Hospital Association, said sometimes even non-infected health care workers have to stay home to take care of family members who aren’t able to work or go to school. The virus has even stymied efforts to mitigate this. Whitlock cited the example of a Coeur d’Alene hospital that provided child care for its employees’ children. The hospital had to shut down the child care program earlier this month because of the virus’s spread, “which caused 140 employees to scramble to find alternative daycare — or stay home with their children,” Whitlock wrote.

Both Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s have selectively delayed and limited surgical procedures in their hospitals as COVID-19 patients stressed their systems, although both are continuing emergency procedures.

TRAVELING NURSES, OVERTIME

Sandow expects the situation at hospitals to worsen as the holiday season rolls around. St. Luke’s has been supplementing its workforce with traveling nurses. But a lot of those nurses will not be taking on contracts before the holidays, Sandow said, and that could pinch hospitals as influenza, COVID-19 and other illnesses become more prevalent during the winter season.

Additionally, the cost of hiring a traveling nurse has doubled or even tripled during the pandemic, Whitlock said. In the past, the turnaround time between hiring a traveling nurse and the nurse’s first day of work was only a few days. Now it could be as long as 60 days, he said.

“Winter is when the volumes are traditionally highest in the medical care, the telemetry unity, the critical care unit and the emergency department,” Sandow said, and right now those units are already facing increased pressure from the uptick in COVID-19 cases in hospitals. cut, repetAt St. Luke’s, 20% of patients are ill with COVID-19, which adds more stress to nurses as those patients require more care and personal protective equipment.

“It’s easy for the public to say, ‘Oh, it’s only 20%,’ but you have to think that prior to COVID, we did not have to take care of that. So now we’re at 20% above what we have to do,” Sandow said.

Add in the reduced availability of staff, and it’s a recipe for a difficult time. Whitlock said hospitals are asking employees to work overtime or double shifts.

“They have had a great response from their workers, but they are starting to see signs of fatigue as employees are starting to decline those overtime or double shift requests,” Whitlock said.

Robert Vande Merwe, the executive director of the Idaho Health Care Association, said the staffing pinch hospitals were facing in the Treasure Valley was harming their ability to care for patients.

“Hospital beds are not likely 100% occupied, but hospital beds don’t provide care. Skilled staff take care of patients, but a health care facility can’t operate without administrative staff, housekeepers or kitchen workers either. Many hospitals are near their ‘capacity’ because of their limited staff,” Vande Merwe said.

And when the traveling nurses that hospitals are relying on get sick, that stresses hospital capacity even further.

“The only answer is to limit community spread,” Vande Merwe said. “Until a vaccine is widely available, the only thing we have to limit community spread are: masks, social distancing and regular testing for workers and students who can’t effectively social distance.”


Local
Who is Boise’s newest Republican legislator?

BOISE — Riding record turnout and a presidential election that mobilized Republican voters statewide, Representative-elect Codi Galloway’s decidedly conservative campaign returned House Seat B to GOP control last week after defeating incumbent Rep. Jake Ellis (D) in West Boise’s District 15 race — one of Idaho’s rare battleground contests.

Linked to conservative politics by a family member in the Statehouse, a past lobbying effort followed by the New York Times and a drive for low-to-no cost education reform, the school teacher turned businesswoman will look to make an early impact in the next legislative session, representing a district where sophomore terms are far from guaranteed.

After completing her first run at public office, Galloway earned early praise from top Republicans for her 52.5% to 47.4% victory.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “The voice that Codi Galloway will bring is that of a young Republican mother with kids in school. I think it’s an important voice to add to the mix.”

“She’s sharp. I’ve been very impressed with her,” said Bedke, calling Galloway “very articulate and a hard, hard worker, hard campaigner.”

State GOP Chairman Tom Luna credited the “big win” to Galloway’s experience as a business owner and teacher, along with her ability to relate to people.

“She is a heck of a candidate. Nobody worked harder than her in District 15. I think you’re going to continue to see her as a leader,” he said by phone Nov. 6.

The district she’ll represent bridges overwhelmingly Republican Meridian and Democrat-dominated Boise. Republicans managed to win the district’s House Seat B with Galloway and extended the six-vote lead GOP Sen. Fred Martin held two years ago to 1,355 ballots. Split-ticket voting likely occurred, as Seat A remained in Democratic hands with incumbent Steve Berch’s 2.8 percentage point win, which left Democrats’ majority in Boise legislative spots 13-2 while Republicans’ supermajority widened statewide.

The district drew heightened attention after Democrats took both House seats in 2018, the first time they’d nabbed a West Boise spot since 1990 (redistricting has since altered District 15’s shape three times, but it has generally covered West Boise since at least the ’80s, according to a legislative map shared by longtime League of Women Voters Idaho volunteer Elinor Chehey).

“When we’re flipping a district, we usually have a little bit of a turnover in the beginning,” Idaho Democrats Chairwoman Van Beechler said. “This is to be expected” but “I can tell you we plan to take all of the district in 2022.”

It’s unclear whether Ellis, 59, will be part of the take-back campaign. He said Monday it’s “too early to tell” if he’ll run for office again.

That turnover came despite Ellis outspending Galloway by just over $7,000, though the two raised within $1,000 of each other, according to Idaho Secretary of State campaign finance reports. Ellis also had a potential “incumbency advantage” on his side in which name recognition, perceptions of experience in office and other factors may make local incumbents around 32% likelier to run and win campaigns than an average candidate, a 2011 University of California Merced study found.

Luna said he’s “just tickled” that campaign efforts panned out as Republicans focused on contacting new Idahoans who were registered Republicans in the states they recently left. That strategy helped the GOP flip another seat in Pocatello, turn the Ada County Commission to a 2-1 Republican majority and retain control of all its existing legislative seats.

Luna said his party will “aggressively” go after more seats in Boise in 2022, which is likely welcome news to Galloway.

Galloway did not provide responses to questions from the Idaho Press before publication.

“Every day, I hear people who are frustrated with the liberal agenda that’s pushing out of Boise and into their neighborhoods,” she said in a campaign video. “We don’t have Republican representation here in Boise anymore and it’s infringing on our freedoms.”

Galloway’s disdain for Democratic control might hint at her guiding principles, but as her term’s Dec. 1 start rapidly approaches, the question remains, “Who is she?”

POLITICAL TIES

“I’ve never been a politician before,” Galloway declared in a campaign video. But her first run for elected office was far from her inaugural foray into politics.

She kicked off her involvement with Idaho Republicans in 2008 by volunteering for Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian’s, first run at the Idaho Legislature. Palmer this year endorsed Galloway’s candidacy ahead of his own landslide win of a seventh consecutive House term. The two are tied by trade and lineage; Palmer is a fellow business owner and Galloway’s uncle. He aligns himself with a conservative wing of the Idaho GOP which decries local health districts’ power to implement mask mandates, seeks to curtail gubernatorial executive power and hopes to amend the Idaho Constitution so that the Legislature can call itself into session, an idea popularized by conservatives dissatisfied with Gov. Brad Little’s pandemic response.

“In general, I agree with (Palmer’s) conservative voting record and honest approach to government,” Galloway wrote in a Ballotpedia survey, though she’s been publicly silent on where the two might split.

Galloway’s fingerprints on policy became increasingly visible in 2017, when she testified at the Legislature in favor of a bill that, when it was later passed, made it easier for Idaho employers to enforce noncompete agreements. LeapFox Learning, a career-technical training business that Galloway founded and co-owned with her husband, Scott, became the policy’s first poster child when LeapFox sued a former employee who took a job with the company’s chief competitor and allegedly shared a contact list she’d had access to at LeapFox.

Embroiled in the suit, Galloway successfully pushed the Legislature to pass restrictions on inter-employer movement by employees despite staunch opposition from Treasure Valley tech firms, among other businesses, who claimed the bill would stymie entrepreneurship and short-circuit competition for top workers in Idaho’s growing market, dissuading companies from moving to or starting out in a state where picking off top industry talents became increasingly difficult. In many cases, company officials were not allowed to switch to their employers’ competitors for 18 months after leaving their old jobs; the burden was on employees to prove they had “no ability to adversely effect the employer’s legitimate business interest” to get out of noncompete pacts and take jobs elsewhere in their industry, an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion said.

Then-Rep. Patrick McDonald (R), who held District 15 Seat B until 2018 and lost a bid to take Seat A this year, sponsored the bill in the Idaho House.

The New York Times detailed early efforts to repeal the bill under the headline “Noncompete Pacts, Under Siege, Find Haven in Idaho,” after a laundry list of big names in business including two Micron co-founders signed a letter decrying the legislation. Despite the best efforts of some Idaho businesses who clung to the amendment to prevent their employees from leaving, it was repealed in 2018, two years after it passed.

According to Galloway’s LinkedIn, she ceded ownership of LeapFox in July 2016 and moved on to become a marketing consultant elsewhere. Scott Galloway’s ownership ended in 2018, per his LinkedIn page.

The case against Galloway’s former employee was resolved out of court after a three-year legal fight.

PLATFORM

The representative-elect’s business policy will undoubtedly intersect with infrastructure funding, another arena where Idaho’s legislators grapple with growth management.

“Infrastructure must be funded more appropriately,” Galloway wrote in a League of Women Voters survey that ran in the Idaho Press. “This is not a case of cutting expenses or being more efficient with funds. Idaho needs to spend more tax dollars on roads and bridges.”

In videos and the survey, Galloway, the granddaughter of a former Ada County sheriff, advocated for police to be “fully funded” to establish “law and order” in Boise, said she’s a “believer in guns” and the Second Amendment and condemned attempts to allow more municipalities to levy sales taxes, a power currently reserved to Idaho resort towns. She also wants to lower property taxes and selectively deregulate Idaho businesses while leaving some guardrails in place.

After starting her career teaching in elementary schools for three years, she said, “I support Gov. Little’s efforts to focus more on education through career ladders and higher teaching salaries,” along with other reforms. On her campaign site, she advocated for smaller class sizes, more student internships and increased school choice, all three of which she argued can be achieved without more funding.

Galloway will take office in December as the Idaho Legislature ramps up for the 2021 legislative session with an organizational session.

Idaho Press reporter Betsy Z. Russell contributed.


Local
Human trafficking happens in Idaho — just not in the way QAnon claims

In recent months, Jennifer Zielinski turned down chances to attend engagements and marches aimed, ostensibly, at preventing child sex trafficking. Idahoans across the state organized those events and reached out to Zielinski, the executive director of the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition, to see if the coalition would participate.

While she appreciated the concern about human trafficking in Idaho, Zielinski couldn’t in good conscience accept the offers. The organizers were using the hashtag #SaveOurChildren to promote their events, and she had concerns.

While it may seem noble, the slogan has been linked to the far-right conspiracy theory network QAnon, which alleges, among other things, that a massive cabal of cannibalistic Satanic pedophiles are conducting nefarious operations against President Donald Trump. QAnon proponents allege there is a hidden elite conducting child sex trafficking operations across the world, and often use the #SaveOurChildren marker when sharing conspiracy theories.

Zielinski didn’t want the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition to be associated with any of it.

“We were very vocal about not being a part of that,” she said.

In some cases she sent education materials to the people who reached out, but the coalition didn’t take part in the events.

What’s frustrating for her, though, is human trafficking does happen in Idaho, and the coalition has been working with an increasing number of victims and survivors. Between July and October 2019, in the Treasure Valley, the coalition worked with 26 people, 21 of whom were identified as victims of human trafficking. Between July and October of this year, the coalition has worked with 176 people. Of those, Zielinski said, 29 self-identified as victims.

Finding the true rate of victimhood is difficult, she said, because victims so often don’t identify. They might be able to recognize sexual assault or domestic violence and report those incidents to the coalition, but they might not understand the totality of their circumstances add up to human trafficking.

“Most minors — a majority of them — consider (the trafficker) their boyfriend,” she said.

There has also been an increase in child sex trafficking since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Idaho.

“The data is critical because it’s not made up,” she said. “It’s what we have.”

#SaveOurChildren

Not everyone who uses the #SaveOurChildren slogan does so with the intention of spreading misinformation or conspiracy theories. That’s part of the problem — people who want to help human trafficking victims might use the hashtag without knowing its origins or its links to questionable information sources.

Because of that, Zielinski said the coalition is “encouraging people to really vet the information, really do the research.”

The marches and events she heard about in Idaho mirrored similar events across the country this summer and fall, such as those in Salt Lake City; Spokane, Washington; and Michigan. Those events used the hashtag but might not have been directly affiliated with QAnon. Regardless, Zielinski wasn’t comfortable taking part in them.

“A lot of the stories that were coming out of the #SaveOurChildren — they were deemed not to be true,” Zielinski said.

Many of those stories involved sordid accounts of celebrities or prominent politicians raping children or running child sex rings. The stereotype of the rich and powerful leading these operations is one of the more harmful byproducts of the hashtag, Zielinski said, because a trafficker can be anyone. A victim can be anyone, too.

And the operations themselves aren’t usually widespread, expensive and glamorous — they often start with an interaction on a dating app spiraling into an abusive relationship in which the trafficker forces the victim to have sex for money, then collects it.

IN THE TREASURE VALLEY

In the past nine months, according to Zielinski, the calls to the coalition’s crisis hotline have nearly quadrupled. Sex trafficking is happening here, even if it doesn’t look like the scenario #SaveOurChildren often portrays.

As the coalition continues to expand its efforts, it makes sense the number of people they help would increase as well.

The coalition has increased its number of partnerships with community organizations, including with Pathways of Idaho, which operates the Pathways Community Crisis Center in Boise.

“We’re placing one of our case managers at the crisis center as well,” Zielinski said.

The coalition also has memorandums of understanding with the Idaho Youth Ranch, allowing the coalition to house youths at Hays House, which is Boise’s only 24/7 homeless shelter for teens.

Ann Burton, director of Hays House, said there has been an uptick in sex trafficking of children during the pandemic. She said traffickers take advantage of children who are online for school. It happened with a student at Hays House — a trafficker appeared in an online classroom and pretended to be a student, trying to convince a 12-year-old to cut class to attend a party.

It’s a common setup, Burton said. Traffickers will rent an Airbnb then pose as a child to try to lure children to the location.

Right now, there are four girls at Hays House who have survived sex trafficking, Burton said.

“And that number is increasing,” she said. “We have an additional coming next week.”

The youngest survivor of sex trafficking who stayed at Hays House was 10 years old, Burton said; the oldest was 17.

Burton said she felt Idahoans saw trafficking as a big-city or East Coast problem. She thinks people don’t believe trafficking happens in the state.

She attributes the uptick less to an actual increase in trafficking in the Treasure Valley and an increased awareness and education about trafficking and what it looks like. Plus, she said, there has never been a centralized, focused effort to reach trafficking victims in the Treasure Valley. Since there is now a focused effort, people are using it.

There isn’t a set law enforcement task force in Idaho devoted to preventing and investigating human trafficking, Zielinski said. Boise Police Department spokeswoman Haley Williams confirmed the department has one officer who focuses on the topic. Across the state, though, there isn’t a concerted effort by law enforcement to crack down on the problem.

It’s why the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition continues to host trainings to help people better understand trafficking situations and what they may look like from the outside.

“It isn’t just the coalition,” she said. “This is a community effort. … It’s going to take everyone.”