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BOISE — Just seven weeks after the last Idaho National Guard deployment ended, Gov. Brad Little on Tuesday activated troops and called in federal personnel to help Idaho hospitals cope with a COVID-19 surge that’s filled them beyond capacity.

“On a daily call with hospitals this morning, we heard there are only four standard adult ICU beds available in the entire state,” Little said in a live-streamed video address to the state. “We are dangerously close to activating statewide crisis standards of care, a historic step that means Idahoans in need of health care could receive a lesser standard of care or may be turned away altogether. In essence, someone would have to decide who can be treated and who cannot. This affects all of us, not just patients with COVID-19.”

The governor mobilized up to 150 guardsmen to support short-staffed medical facilities across the state with tasks such as screenings, lab work and other duties. He also called in 200 privately contracted additional medical and administrative personnel to be made available to Idaho through a contract with the U.S. General Services Administration; those will be 100% federally funded.

In addition, the governor announced that a 20-person Department of Defense medical response team will be deployed to North Idaho, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the state and the current surge has been particularly overwhelming. The team, all active-duty Army personnel, will include respiratory therapists, registered nurses and physicians; it’s one of just 20 such teams in the nation. FEMA selected Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene and the team will be working there by the end of the week to support the hard-hit and over-full hospital.

“We’ve reached a point in the pandemic we have not been before,” a somber Little said. “There are more Idahoans in the ICU than there have ever been before. The vast majority of them are unvaccinated.”

Idaho reported more than 2,300 additional COVID-19 infections between Friday and Monday, and the statewide test-positivity rate now exceeds 26%, according to tracking by the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. A 5% or lower positivity rate signals the virus is under control.

“Nearly all new COVID cases, COVID hospitalizations and COVID deaths since the start of the year were unvaccinated,” Little said. “Vaccination protects you from landing in the hospital or worse.”

According to the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, just 48.5% of Idahoans age 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to 61.2% nationwide. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Idaho’s overall vaccination rate is fourth-lowest among the states.

Just last week, Little announced the opening of three monoclonal antibody treatment centers around the state, in North Idaho, Pocatello and the Treasure Valley, to treat patients at risk for severe COVID but who have not yet sickened enough to require hospitalization.

He’s also again waived temporary licensing fees for retired or inactive nurses, for a second straight year, so they can re-enter the workforce. Last year, more than 1,000 nurses and other health professionals used the waiver to step back in to help with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Idaho National Guard

Sgt. 1st Class Castro Rodriguez, with the Idaho National Guard, helps pack boxes of food for the Idaho Foodbank at the Boise Centre in April 2020. The boxes were intended to help offset food shortages experienced by families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hope it will be enough. I hope and pray it will be enough for us to avoid statewide standards of care,” he said. “We are teetering on the brink. There is only one solution to the crisis. We need more Idahoans to choose to receive the safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine.”

Idaho’s previous National Guard deployment for the COVID-19 pandemic started in March of 2020 and eventually included more than 300 personnel, who worked on everything from vaccine administration to testing, decontamination and other support for hospitals, health districts, long-term care facilities and Native American tribes.

That deployment ended July 9.

Little said that on Monday night, he toured a nearly full ICU at St. Luke’s hospital in Boise, and what he saw there was “heartbreaking.”

“Among the COVID-positive patients — all of them were unvaccinated,” he said. “Some were young. Some were middle-aged. Two patients were pregnant. I was told the average age of the patients was 43. All of them were struggling to breathe, and most were only breathing with the help of a machine.”

“Doctors, nurses, and associated medical staff are exhausted,” the governor said. “They have been working overtime for months to keep up with the demand for care.”

“Our health care system is designed to deal with the everyday realities of life. Our health care system is not designed to withstand the prolonged strain caused by an unrestrained global pandemic,” the governor said. “It is simply not sustainable. Please choose to receive the vaccine now to support your fellow Idahoans who need you.

“It will help our health care system return to normal,” he said. “It is our ticket out of the pandemic.”

Post Register reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel contributed to this report.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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