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Idaho rations health care statewide as COVID surge drags on

A photo of Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on Sept. 10, 2021. Idaho’s public health leaders have expanded health-care rationing statewide amid a massive increase in the number of coronavirus patients requiring hospitalization. The Associated Press

Idaho public health leaders on Thursday expanded health care rationing statewide amid a massive increase in the number of coronavirus patients requiring hospitalization.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare made the announcement after St. Luke’s Health System, Idaho’s largest hospital network, on Wednesday asked state health leaders to allow “crisis standards of care” because the increase in COVID-19 patients has exhausted the state’s medical resources.

Idaho is one of the least vaccinated U.S. states, with only about 40 per cent of its residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Only Wyoming and West Virginia have lower vaccination rates.

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Crisis care standards mean that scarce resources like ICU beds will be allotted to the patients most likely to survive. Other patients will be treated with less effective methods or, in dire cases, given pain relief and other palliative care.

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Thursday’s move came a week after Idaho officials started allowing health care rationing at hospitals in northern parts of the state.

“The situation is dire – we don’t have enough resources to adequately treat the patients in our hospitals, whether you are there for COVID-19 or a heart attack or because of a car accident,” Idaho Department of Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said in a statement.

He urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor settings.

“Our hospitals and healthcare systems need our help. The best way to end crisis standards of care is for more people to get vaccinated. It dramatically reduces your chances of having to go to the hospital if you do get sick from COVID-19,” Jeppesen said.

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One in every 201 Idaho residents tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The mostly rural state ranks 12th in the U.S. for newly confirmed cases per capita. More than 1,300 new coronavirus cases were reported to the state on Wednesday, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

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Hospitalizations have skyrocketed. On Sept. 13, the most recent data available from the state showed that 678 people were hospitalized statewide with coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds has stayed mostly flat for the last two weeks at 70 people each day — suggesting the state may have reached the limit of its ability to treat ICU patients.

Though all of the state’s hospitals can now ration health care resources as needed, some might not need to take that step. Each hospital will decide how to implement the crisis standards of care in its own facility, public health officials said.

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Kootenai Health in the city of Coeur d’Alene was the first hospital in the state to officially enter crisis standards of care last week.

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At the time, chief of staff Dr. Robert Scoggins said some patients were being treated in a conference center that had been converted into a field hospital. Others received treatment in hallways or in converted emergency room lobbies. Urgent and elective surgeries are on hold across much of the state.

On Wednesday, nearly 92 per cent of all of the COVID-19 patients in St. Luke’s hospitals were unvaccinated. Sixty-one of the hospital’s 78 intensive care unit patients had COVID-19.

Public health officials have warned Idaho residents for weeks to take extra care to ensure they don’t end up in hospitals. Last week, Jeppesen said residents should take their medications as prescribed, wear seatbelts and reconsider participating in any activities like cycling that could lead to injuries.

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