COVID Surge Forces Health Rationing 09/17 06:24
BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- In another ominous sign about the spread of the delta
variant, Idaho public health leaders on Thursday expanded health care rationing
statewide and individual hospital systems in Alaska and Montana have enacted
similar crisis standards amid a spike in the number of unvaccinated COVID-19
patients requiring hospitalization.
The decisions marked an escalation of the pandemic in several Western states
struggling to convince skeptical people to get vaccinated.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare made the announcement after St.
Luke's Health System, Idaho's largest hospital network, 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% of its
residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Crisis care standards mean that scarce resources such as 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
A hospital in Helena, Montana, was also forced to implement crisis standards
of care amid a surge in COVID-19 patients. Critical care resources are at
maximum capacity at St. Peter's Health hospital, officials said Thursday.
And earlier this week Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska's largest
hospital, also started prioritizing resources.
Thursday's move in Idaho came a week after state 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 statement.
He urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors and in crowded
"Our hospitals and health care systems need our help," Jeppesen said.
In Idaho's St. Luke's Health System, patients are being ventilated by hand
-- with a nurse or doctor squeezing a bag -- for up to hours at a time while
hospital officials work to find a bed with a mechanical ventilator, said chief
medical officer Dr. Jim Souza.
Others are being treated with high-flow oxygen in rooms without monitoring
systems, which means a doctor or nurse might not hear an alarm if the patient
has a medical emergency, he said. Some patients are being treated for sepsis --
a life-threatening infection -- in emergency department waiting rooms.
The normal standards of care act as a net that allows physicians to "carry
out the high wire acts that we do every day, like open heart surgery and bone
marrow transplants and neuro-interventional stroke care," Souza said. "The net
is gone, and people will fall from the high wire."
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.
Hospitalizations have skyrocketed. On Monday, the most recent data available
from the state showed that 678 people were hospitalized statewide with
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds has
stayed mostly flat for the last two weeks at 170 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
On Wednesday, nearly 92% of all of the COVID-19 patients in St. Luke's
hospitals were unvaccinated. Sixty-one of the hospital's 78 ICU patients had
COVID-19. St. Luke's physicians have pleaded with Idaho residents for months to
get vaccinated and take steps to slow the spread of coronavirus, warning that
hospitals beds were quickly running out.
The health care crisis isn't just impacting hospitals -- primary care
physicians and medical equipment suppliers are also struggling to cope with the
crush of coronavirus-related demand.
One major medical supplier, Norco Medical, said demand for oxygen tanks and
related equipment has increased, sometimes forcing the company to send patients
home with fewer cylinders than they would normally provide. High-flow oxygen
equipment -- normally used in hospital or hospice care settings -- is also
being more frequently requested for at-home patients, said Norco President
"It seems like they're discharging aggressively to free up beds for new
patients coming into the hospitals," Margonis said.
Margonis spent much of his morning on the phone with public health leaders
and hospitals, trying to determine how the crisis standards of care will change
the way patients are discharged from hospitals. Already, the company has seen
an increase in customers seeking specialty oxygen equipment that flows at a
rate of 8, 12 or 20 liters per minute rather than the standard 4 or 5 liters
per minute, he said.
"When someone goes home, we bring their bed, we bring their wheelchair, we
bring their cannula, their oxygen," Margonis said. "This is where we're saying,
it's important that you can't just discharge the problem, even if the patient
is on the mend and on the way to getting healthy. To recover, they need the
Primary Health Medical Group, Idaho's largest independent primary care and
urgent care system, has been forced to shorten operating hours because its
waiting rooms were so packed with patients that staffers were staying hours
past closing in order to see them all. Meanwhile, the company was dealing with
higher-than-normal numbers of staffers out sick because they had been exposed
to coronavirus in the community or had symptoms and were awaiting tests.
Now the medical group is also preparing to monitor patients who are released
from hospitals earlier than normal or trying to avoid emergency rooms
completely, said CEO Dr. David Peterman, and they will likely be sicker and
need more care.
"This is heart-wrenching. I've practiced medicine in southwest Idaho for 40
years and I have never seen anything like this," he said.