Coronavirus: Idaho hospitals enter crisis mode, begin rationing care amid COVID-19 surge

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — A COVID-19 surge overwhelming northern Idaho hospitals prompted state health officials on Tuesday to activate crisis standards allowing health care providers to ration medical care.

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According to KTVB, the measure, activated by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, means hospital staff must now ration “limited medicine and life-saving equipment on patients likelier to pull through.” For instance:

  • Ventilators may no longer be available to every patient struggling to breathe.
  • A person badly injured in a car wreck may no longer get a hospital bed.
  • “Comfort care” may be the only option for someone suffering a terminal illness.

Activation of Idaho’s “crisis standards of care” currently applies to at least 10 hospitals in two public health districts, The Washington Post reported.

Specifically, IDHW officials cited a “massive increase in patients with COVID-19 who require hospitalization” and a “severe shortage of staffing and available beds” in announcing the emergency protocol.

More than 500 people were hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 on Sept. 1 — the most recent data available on the Department of Health and Welfare’s website — and more than a third of them were in intensive care unit beds.

More than 95% of COVID-19 patients in Idaho hospitals are unvaccinated, KTVB reported.

Meanwhile, hospitals across Treasure Valley, Magic Valley and East Idaho are signaling they have reached their limits, while Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s health systems have warned that they are being pushed to the brink of crisis standards, the Idaho Capital Sun reported.

Medical experts confirmed to The Associated Press that Idaho could have as many as 30,000 new coronavirus cases a week by mid-September if the current rate of infections persists.

Other states are preparing to take similar measures if needed. Hawaii Gov. David Ige quietly signed an order last week releasing hospitals and health care workers from liability if they have to ration health care.

In a prepared statement, Idaho Gov. Brad Little called the development an “unprecedented and unwanted point in the history of our state.”

“We have taken so many steps to avoid getting here, but yet again we need to ask more Idahoans to choose to receive the COVID-19 vaccine…,so we can minimize the spread of the disease and reduce the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, many of which involve younger Idahoans and are preventable with safe and effective vaccines,” Little stated.

In late August, Little called in 220 medical workers available through federal programs and mobilized 150 Idaho National Guard soldiers to help hospitals cope with the surge.

According to the Sun, the official “crisis standards” declaration helps to protect doctors, nurses and hospitals from liability “when they can’t respond as well to patients or have to make tough decisions about which patient is most likely to survive.” A state committee developed an in-depth plan in 2020 for health care providers to follow should the emergency standards be enacted.

IDHW Director Dave Jeppesen called activation of the crisis standards a “last resort” he was “fervently hoping to avoid.”

“It means we have exhausted our resources to the point that our health care systems are unable to provide the treatment and care we expect,” Jeppesen stated in a news release.

“The best tools we have to turn this around is for more people to get vaccinated and to wear masks indoors and in outdoor crowded public places. Please choose to get vaccinated as soon as possible. It is your very best protection against being hospitalized from COVID-19,” he added.

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-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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