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Idaho health officials warn of ‘grim’ fall and winter, at risk of care rationing

Idaho State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn talks about Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout during a media briefing in April.

State health officials said Tuesday that Idaho is near record high rates of COVID-19 hospitalization

When she’s out grocery shopping in the Treasure Valley lately, Dr. Christine Hahn sees fewer people in masks than she did last fall.

As Idaho’s top epidemiologist, it worries Hahn to see Idahoans acting like the COVID-19 threat has passed, when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

She and other state officials warned Tuesday that Idaho is headed for a hospital crisis. They pleaded with Idahoans to get vaccinated and continue to use masks and social distancing as a way to protect themselves and others.

“The surge is driving our projections upward to about 30,000 cases per week by mid-October,” said Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist. “This is beyond what we saw last winter, when our cases peaked in December.”

They’re also projecting the number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions to be “as high as 2,500 in a single week,” which is higher than the winter surge.

“Given our current trajectory and rate of vaccination, and the current variant circulating, it looks like it could be a very grim winter for us, at least a grim fall,” Turner said.

New cases of COVID-19 in Idaho have gone from 3.4 per 100,000 people to 30 per 100,000 in a matter of weeks, officials said.

Data obtained and analyzed by the Idaho Capital Sun have shown that severe illness from the coronavirus is filling hospital beds faster than at any time during the pandemic.

There were 121 people in Idaho ICU beds with COVID-19 over the weekend — about 41% of the staffed adult ICU beds in the state — according to federal data submitted by hospitals.

“It’s very concerning that we are seeing this now” before school starts, before flu season arrives, and while there are large gatherings happening in Idaho, said Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch.

The state’s committee for “crisis standards of care” is once again meeting to discuss the possibility that doctors, nurses and hospitals may be forced to decide which patients receive life-saving care.

“The hospitals are completely stressed,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

Idaho hospitals are saying that, on this trajectory, they may reach crisis standards of care in as little as two weeks, she said.

“We’re seeing health care professionals leaving the profession to do other jobs because the stress and demand has been so high,” she said. One hospital in North Idaho has 500 job openings it needs to fill, she said.

Hospitals have been asking the state for staffing help, and the state in turn has asked for help from federal sources.

But officials are hearing “it’s going to be tough to get any federal resources because we’re seeing this ubiquitous surge and (some states have) higher hospitalizations,” she said.

“We have to, as a society, figure out the best way to stop the flow of patients coming into the hospital,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

Hahn said she wants to “get the message out on how worried we are, and how serious we think this is,” because too many Idahoans seem to think the situation isn’t dire. Vaccinations and other layers of protection, such as masks, are the best tools to keep Idaho from crisis, she said.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.