With hospitals overwhelmed by virus, Idaho seeks volunteers

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s hospitals are bursting at the seams as coronavirus numbers continue to skyrocket across the state, prompting state leaders to call on residents to serve as volunteers to help keep medical facilities operating.

“There’s a wide variety of positions available, a wide variety of skillsets — we need positions in every part of the state,” Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Public Health, said during a press briefing Tuesday afternoon.

Idaho’s situation is dire, Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said. As of Friday, the number of new COVID-19 cases statewide had increased 31% compared to the previous week, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and coronavirus-related hospital admissions had also climbed by about 30%.

On Thursday, 1,032 new coronavirus cases were reported to the state, the vast majority of them believed to be caused by the highly contagious delta variant.

“We’re almost near the peak we were at in December for hospitalized patients, and we’re actually higher than we’ve ever been for the number of patients on ventilators,” Jeppesen said. ”Their level of capacity is so strained that we are talking about crisis standards of care — we’re dangerously close to that as this point in time.”

People with lapsed health care licenses can get temporary authorization to work under the state’s COVID-19 response plan, and people without medical backgrounds can help with hospital housekeeping, data entry or contact tracing, Shaw-Tulloch said, by signing up on a new website, VolunteerIdaho.com.

State leaders have made a similar plea for help to the U.S. government, asking for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other states to deploy health care workers to Idaho.

The capacity crunch is affecting urban and rural communities alike.

Kelly McGrath, chief medical officer for Clearwater Valley Health in Orofino and St. Mary’s Health in Cottonwood, told The Lewiston Tribune that both small, rural hospitals are stretched thin. When patients at the 23-bed Orofino hospital recently needed to be transferred to a larger hospital, McGrath said, staffers called more than a dozen hospitals in Idaho, Montana and Washington before finally locating a place in southern Idaho.

Doctor’s offices are also feeling the pressure, said Dr. David Peterman, the CEO of Primary Health Group, which operates 21 urgent care and family medicine clinics in southwestern Idaho. The high demand for urgent care treatment — much of it coronavirus related — threatens to impact the speed in which clinicians can administer coronavirus vaccines, he said.

“Frankly we’re so overwhelmed by the testing and the demand for urgent care that we may be a little slow,” Peterman said. “We are setting records in August with 1,600 patients in our urgent care daily.”

At some point, they can’t see all the patients, he said.

“Understand that if primary care all over the state is overwhelmed, there’s not an alternative,” because emergency rooms are also full, Peterman said.

The increase in coronavirus cases is affecting all age groups, said deputy state epidemiologist Kathryn Turner. Last week the state hit a new record with the number of cases reported in children under age 5.

Peterman, who is a pediatrician, said his clinics have also seen positive tests among kids increase. During one week in July, Primary Health had six positive coronavirus tests among patients aged 5 to 18 years old. Last week the clinic had 123 positive tests in that age group, he said.

“If you do that math, you can’t get more frightening than that,” he said. “Any child that is admitted to the hospital and certainly any death is preventable. We can stop this in its tracks today, right now, if I wear a mask and you wear a mask, particularly in schools and inside.”

Children under 12 are not yet eligible to be immunized, and experts say masks offer some of the best protection they can have against the virus. As of Tuesday afternoon, the state health department knew of only four districts that were requiring masks — Boise, Blaine, Moscow and Lapwai.