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What happens when thousands of Idahoans get sick? Business takes a hit.

Idaho businesses, schools, hospitals, offices and even public libraries are dealing with staff shortages, exacerbated by the omicron variant’s spread in Idaho.
Idaho businesses, schools, hospitals, offices and even public libraries are dealing with staff shortages, exacerbated by the omicron variant’s spread in Idaho.

State’s unemployment rate is at historic low, but many shops and other services cut hours as omicron rages

Schools shut down in Nampa. Hospital staff and clinic workers calling out sick. “Out of stock” at restaurants and stores. Limited hours at some Boise city buildings and the Pocatello public library.

Idaho has stayed “open” for nearly the entire pandemic. Then omicron arrived; some parts of Idaho’s economy are now struggling to stay open in spite of the virus.

“This was predictable. You could see it coming from over in Europe, New York, and now is the time for Idaho to take a turn in the barrel,” Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry President Alex LaBeau said in an interview last week. “The realities were pretty apparent.”

The state’s top health officials continue to implore Idahoans to get vaccinated, get booster shots, don masks and try to avoid catching and spreading the omicron variant.

Idaho has recorded many COVID-19 cases among people who are vaccinated; however, data from Idaho and elsewhere show that vaccination keeps people from getting severe illness that may have lasting effects.

The rate of COVID-19 infections is 2.5 times higher among non-fully vaccinated Idahoans. (Courtesy of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare)
The rate of COVID-19 infections is 2.5 times higher among non-fully vaccinated Idahoans. (Courtesy of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare)

“I would like to leave you with a reminder that we all must take action collectively, and use those preventive measures, to keep our schools and businesses open and protect our health care capacity,” Idaho Division of Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch said in a media briefing last week.

“Getting vaccinated is important,” she said. “And if you are vaccinated, get boosted, get tested if you’re sick or if you’ve been exposed. Stay home if you’re sick. Wear a mask with the highest level of protection if possible and keep your distance from others.”

That week, Idaho legislators gathered at the Capitol, with very few wearing masks. Some state lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19.

“Collectively, we can advise, we can share the best information we have,” Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said in a media briefing last week. “But if a large portion of the population doesn’t want to follow that guidance, the cost is the risk that we take … not only as a cost in human life, (the cost of) people dying earlier, going to the hospital or getting debilitating diseases that last the rest of their life. The cost — particularly in this wave — could be a direct impact to our economy, and to our schools, and to our health care, and to the way we live our lives here for … some period of time.”

Jeppesen said it is up to Idahoans to trust their local public health officials and health care providers, and to follow guidelines.

Omicron as a last straw for some industries

Idaho is likely to end up in crisis standards of care again, as Idaho hospitals and long-term care facilities face staffing shortages related to COVID-19.

Saint Alphonsus on Monday had 142 employees out for reasons directly related to COVID-19. That’s out of about 6,000 employees, but is more than double the number of staff out on Sept. 29 — when Idaho was in crisis standards partly due to staffing — and more than four times the number of staff out on Sept. 14, 2020.

“Let me say it this way,” Dr. James Souza, chief physician executive for St. Luke’s Health System, said in a media briefing Monday. “Our sick call-offs are up more than twentyfold in the last three weeks.”

Souza said St. Luke’s has once again had to pull doctors from clinics to work in hospitals. That creates a ripple effect in the clinics, too.

Some of the numbers Idaho touts as indicative of a strong economy are the very same numbers that put Idaho in a bind.

The state’s unemployment rate is at historic lows — 2.4% in December, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. That could be a result of “the Great Resignation,” a wave of early retirements, the housing crisis or a ripple effect of high-paid remote workers moving to Idaho.

Regardless of the cause, Idaho employers went into 2022 with “a tremendous amount of unfilled jobs,” LaBeau said.

“Where we find ourselves as employers is that situation where we’re already running thin because we had a lot of job openings, then omicron comes up and takes a swipe, and sure enough a bunch of people are at home now, including me,” LaBeau said.

LaBeau and his son stayed home in isolation last week because they had COVID-19 — with minimal symptoms, which he attributes to being vaccinated.

What happens when child care and schools shut down?

The labor crisis demonstrates where Idaho needs to improve its social infrastructure, LaBeau said. One example is child care, he said. Child care centers in Idaho went into the pandemic understaffed; they couldn’t pay workers enough to keep them, because Idaho families paying full freight for child care couldn’t afford to pay higher rates.

When child care is out of reach — either because of cost or staffing shortages — it keeps parents from working full-time, or sometimes working at all.

As COVID-19 rages out of control, the staffing challenges are magnified.

“Even those who have steady child care are facing unexpected closures mid-January due to a surge of Covid-19 cases among children and teachers, adding to the stress for Treasure Valley parents,” Karen Lehr of KIVI-TV, Idaho News 6, reported last Monday.

Idaho schools also faced the reality this month that face-to-face education and even virtual school cannot happen if teachers and students are out sick, in quarantine or caring for sick family members.

“At least five districts and one school closed last week for a day or two, and at least 11 other schools and districts are closing for parts of this week,” Kyle Pfannenstiel of Idaho Ed News reported Tuesday.

Jeppesen and other officials have repeatedly warned that waves of illness — especially severe illness — from COVID-19 would hinder efforts to keep schools open.

“We will continue to broadcast the message that we know is accurate and what will work best to help people avoid those outcomes,” Jeppesen said last week. “But ultimately, it’s what the people will choose to decide, and there will be consequences for those choices.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.