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Idaho ICU units at highest capacity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen visited an ICU and said it was difficult to see patients struggling for their lives.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho hospitals are nearing the peak of their capacity and the number of patients in intensive care units is at its highest point since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  

Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen told reporters on Tuesday that he visited an ICU in the Treasure Valley over the weekend and said it was difficult to see patients struggling for their lives and stressed out medical staff doing their very best to keep up.

He said nearly everybody in Idaho hospitals with COVID-19 is unvaccinated. Right now, only about 53 percent of those eligible for the vaccine in Idaho have gotten a shot.

Health experts are hoping Monday's full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine will help push those numbers down. Sarah Leeds, the manager of the Idaho Immunization Program, said they have seen some slight increases in vaccination rates but more time is needed to access if the government's approval will have an impact on vaccination rates.

The biggest concern facing Idaho's health care system is avoiding crisis standards of care, which means hospitals would begin rationing care. Jeppesen said the department is doing everything it can to keep that from happening, but they will be ready to act if things get worse.

"We will keep a close eye on this, we will continue to do everything we can to avoid crisis standards of care, but we are ready should a hospital or multiple hospitals recommend we move them to crisis standards of care," Jeppesen said.

KTVB has received a lot of inquiries about children going back to school and whether it's safe for them to be back in the classroom at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Idaho. Elke Shaw-Tulloch is the administrator for the Division of Public Health. She said that $30 million for COVID-19 testing is being made available to public and private schools in Idaho for grades K-12. 

The department is working with schools to get this money distributed across the state. It is purely voluntary to accept it and the funds can be used in a variety of ways.

Because Idaho hospitals and medical clinics are so stressed to the limit right now, Shaw-Tulloch said a call has gone out to get more volunteers. People can sign-up through the volunteeridaho.com website

"It's a wide variety of positions that are available, a wide variety of skills sets. We need positions in every reach of the state, any support that we can get," she said.

KTVB asked health leaders if the state plans to track COVID-19 cases in Idaho schools this year. Dr. Kathryn Turner, the deputy state epidemiologist, said there is no formal mechanism for the state to know what school a student who tested positive for the virus attends.

"I will tell you that if any school that does receive these funds and reports back the total number of tests they did, total number of positives they got, we will make those data public in aggregate, but as far as every school everywhere in Idaho it's really difficult to do a standardized statewide report," Turner said.

She added that they are working on a better method to understand the numbers and get them out to parents, the public and schools.

Gov. Little comments on FDA approval of COVID-19 vaccine

While there are no vaccine mandates coming from Gov. Brad Little, he is still urging Idahoans to get the vaccine.

Little says he hopes the FDA  fully approving the Pfizer vaccine will give Idahoans who are on the fence the confidence they need to get the shot.

"America is the best country in the world. We are able to offer our citizens a free, convenient vaccine. Many people across the globe are not as fortunate. To our friends and neighbors still waiting to get the vaccine shot, the time to get the shot is now."

Little adds that getting the shot will ensure health care access remains available to everyone. And he says getting the shot will help keep Idaho's economy strong and schools open.

On Monday, the total number of confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 cases in Idaho topped 214,000 since the start of the pandemic. That means about one out of every nine Idahoans has contracted the virus.

There were 13 new deaths reported statewide, including five in Ada County and two in Canyon County.

According to the state's dashboard, 803,695 people have received a vaccine and 720,700 people have been fully vaccinated. 

The total number of doses administered now stands at 1,464,258.

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