Health officials are warning the public that hospitals could reach their limits as COVID-19 cases rise again, coupled with pent-up demand for inpatient care.
With limited testing capabilities, health experts in Idaho are still uncertain to what extent the recent increase in cases is a result of the highly transmissible delta variant. But they know the numbers are heading in the wrong direction, and they know COVID-19 vaccines have been effective in keeping infections, severe cases and deaths at bay.
St. Luke’s chief medical officer Dr James Souza said hospitals “are exploding to the brim” because of an increase in all kinds of hospitalizations, including COVID-19.
Souza’s message to the public: “Get the vaccine, get the vaccine, get the vaccine. “
“The overwhelming majority of (COVID-19) patients to this day remain the unvaccinated cohort, and that’s really unnecessary,” Souza told the Idaho Statesman on Wednesday. “This is unnecessary suffering and death, and this is the message we need to get across.”
COVID-19 vaccines are effective, state and hospital data shows
Souza said vaccinated people who end up becoming infected with COVID-19 – so-called breakthrough cases – usually have mild cases. The idea that these show vaccines don’t work “couldn’t be further from the truth,” Souza said.
“The police and soldiers wear bulletproof vests so that they can do their job, take a bullet and survive it,” Souza said. “These patients who are successful in getting vaccinated present with a cold. They are not hospitalized, and they are certainly not hospitalized in the intensive care unit. “
As of January, nearly 100% of deaths in Idaho have been in unvaccinated patients, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The average age of people hospitalized for COVID-19 has also fallen, from around 69 in January to 56 more recently, Souza said – which he said is a testament to the success of vaccines among the elderly population.
In Idaho, 77% of people 65 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, depending on the state. Only 42% between 12 and 64 years old received at least one dose.
Hospitals facing pent-up demand for hospital care
During the last major peak in COVID-19 cases, in December and January, hospitals only focused on the coronavirus, Souza said. But this time, patients are hospitalized with all kinds of problems, in addition to the virus.
“That’s it,” Souza said. “These are strokes, heart attacks, new infections, and new cancer diagnoses.”
Souza believes a few factors may be at play. Patients were reluctant to travel to hospitals to treat ailments as the COVID-19 pandemic increased, and now there is a pent-up demand for inpatient care.
Behavioral health issues, Souza said, and substance use also lead to mismanagement of other chronic diseases. He said there was also the question of whether COVID-19 was exacerbating other health problems.
Souza said that in St. Luke’s, admissions for COVID-19 have dropped from 5% of hospitalizations two weeks ago to 10% this week. Any further increase could cause problems for the health system, he added.
The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has doubled since the beginning of the monthsaid Dave Jeppesen, director of the Department of Health and Welfare. Testing positivity fell from 2.8% four weeks ago to 4.3% in the week ending July 11. And the seven-day moving average rose from less than 50 new cases per day on July 5 to more than 146 per day last Friday.
Idaho recorded its highest number of new single-day cases on Tuesday – 245 – since late April. More than 70 of those cases were in Ada County.
“It really has become a pandemic for those who are not vaccinated,” Jeppesen said on Tuesday.
Rising COVID-19 Cases Contribute to St. Luke’s Vaccination Mandate
Two of Idaho’s largest healthcare systems, St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus, announced earlier this month that they would impose COVID-19 vaccines on employees. Primary Health Medical Group, a major healthcare provider, has also said it will require its workers to be vaccinated. This added the vaccine against the virus to the list of vaccinations needed to work for all of these health systems.
Since, hundreds protested at the Idaho Capitol and in front of hospitals. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin held a news conference on the warrants and called on the Idaho legislature to reconvene to ban vaccine requirements by private employers.
“The problem here today is not the effectiveness of the vaccine,” McGeachin said at a press conference last week. “The problem that arises is a question of individual liberty and liberty. Those who have made the personal medical choice not to take this vaccine deserve their decisions to be respected. “
Souza said the decision to impose COVID-19 vaccines among employees had something to do with the increase in COVID-19 cases. Health officials have learned a lot from the last three waves of cases, he said, and “we don’t want to see another employee die from this completely preventable event.”
“Our true north on this decision was patient safety and the safety of our people,” Souza said. “We have very vulnerable and immunocompromised people entering our facilities, and it has been well demonstrated in the pandemic that transmission events occur in hospitals. We have an obligation to do everything we can, everything in our power, to prevent this from happening. “
St. Luke’s and other Idaho health systems have emergency plans to ration care for when hospitals are on the verge of reaching capacity, whether it’s intensive care beds or staffing limits. In the past, hospitals in the United States closed their doors elective procedures and staff have been moved to focus on more acute care.
“We really don’t want to have to activate them,” Souza said. “This will only exacerbate this health problem in our communities and the pent-up demand we allowed to occur in the first three waves.”