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Doctors worried about overburdening hospital capacity in Magic Valley: 'This is the worst spot we've ever been in'

As coronavirus cases surge, a doctor at St. Luke's Magic Valley said the hospital has run out of beds for patients and has had to transport them to other hospitals.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Health officials are alarmed by the lack of hospital capacity and the overall health in the Magic Valley as coronavirus cases continue to surge upward throughout the region.

Dr. Joshua Kern, the vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s Magic Valley in Twin Falls, told KTVB they've had to transfer patients to other hospitals because they simply didn't have room.

"This is the worst spot we've ever been in," Kern said.

With COVID-19 cases rising in Southcentral Idaho, he doesn’t think the situation in the hospital is going to get better anytime soon.

“These last maybe 10 days or so having roughly an average of 40 patients in the hospital with COVID at any given time is higher than at any point in the pandemic so far,” Kern said. “We're getting to this point where, if we're needing to transfer patients out, it’s not clear where we're going to be sending them.”

Coronavirus patients make up 25% of patients in the Twin Falls hospital causing it to fill up, as there other non-coronavirus patients also admitted there.

“Northern Utah hospitals, Salt Lake City hospitals, ICU capacity, is full,” Kern said. “Pocatello and Boise hospitals are now getting crunched for capacity as well.”

Kern and other doctors on Wednesday gave an update to the Board of Health for the South Central Public Health District. They voiced concerns that ongoing care for COVID-19 patients is putting strain on doctors and nurses, and they’re winding down some of their elective surgeries. 

Through next week, anything that requires an overnight stay in the hospital and would be considered elective has been canceled. This has been extended to cardiovascular cases as well, like when someone is in need of a pacemaker.

“Pretty significant impacts to our ability to provide the regular level of care,” Kern said. “We heard that, interestingly, from the other hospitals that were on the call.”

RELATED: Public health officials concerned about 'alarming' coronavirus surge in Magic, Wood River valleys

Twin Falls, Minidoka, and Cassia counties are seeing cases and positivity rates climbing, while hospital capacity shrinks.

“Our data is indicating case numbers across our district are trending upward,” said Brianna Bodily, a spokesperson for South Central Public Health District.

Those three counties along with Jerome, Camas, and Gooding counties are in the "High Risk" category of the health district’s regional risk summary.

Lincoln County is in the ‘Moderate Risk’ category while Blaine County is in the ‘Minimal Risk’ category.

“In general, most of our counties are actually increasing both in risk levels and case counts right now,” Bodily said.

The moving average incidence rate for Cassia County is 116.5, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The rate for Twin Falls County is 80.7 and Minidoka County is 107.3.

Doctors at the meeting asked the board to issue a mask mandate and restrict group sizes to try to slow the spread of the virus. The board voted the mask mandate down, but did pass a motion to encourage Gov. Brad Little to issue a statewide mask mandate.

“It’s kind of what we've seen throughout this pandemic, different officials passing the responsibility back and forth,” Kern said.

Bodily said commissioners weren't comfortable passing the mask mandate for their region at this time.

“The concern was there that all of the board members felt like they needed their commissioners' support before voting 'yay' to that motion,” she said.

The board did vote to restrict group sizes to 50 or fewer when indoors, but they have yet to release a list of exemptions.

Meanwhile, Dr. Kern is hoping St. Luke’s Magic Valley doesn’t have to resort to crisis standards of care, in which nurses and doctors are caring for too many patients to be considered safe.

“That's what we've been trying to avoid throughout this entire pandemic and here we are right on the precipice of it,” he said.

Kern's plea to the public is to continue to take the pandemic seriously. He said the state has shown that it can control this virus, but it will require people to wear face masks and avoid large social events.

When Kern spoke with KTVB on Wednesday, he said they had beds right then and there, but he can't guarantee they will be there on Thursday if someone needs them.

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