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Idaho nurses continue to feel the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unvaccinated

"The fallout truly comes from not having nurses," one Treasure Valley nurse told KTVB on Wednesday.

BOISE, Idaho — As COVID-19 patients continue to fill up Idaho hospitals, concerns about Crisis Standards of Care, where hospitals turn down some people in need of medical help based on need, are growing

"Individual humans would receive a score based on their severity of illness that determines whether or not they qualify for not admission to the intensive care unit but a trial of admission to the intensive care unit," Dr. Jim Souza, the chief physician executive at St. Luke’s, explained.

Statewide numbers show near-record levels for total hospitalizations and patients in the ICU.  As of Wednesday, 436 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized and 135 COVID-19 patients are in ICUs across Idaho.

Medical staff in all departments are feeling the weight of the pandemic, especially with a shortage in nurses, which is leading to longer hours and more shifts at the bedside for individual nurses.

"The fallout truly comes from not having nurses," Michelle Lythgoe, an OB nurse working in the Treasure Valley, told KTVB.

Lythgoe described the past year and a half as really hard, from the political contention regarding COVID-19, to watching patients get really sick from the virus, especially infection complications with pregnant people. 

The lack of vaccinated people is putting a strain on an already exhausted nursing staff in the Treasure Valley.

"We have nurses that are getting sick from COVID-19," Lythgoe said. "When we get exposures, we're mandated to stay home until we're healthy so we don't unwittingly expose our coworkers, expose our patients. Because of that, it puts our numbers at critical standpoints."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lythgoe was working with 10 to 12 other nurses on a shift. However, those shifts are rare and she is now working between 16 and 19 hours most days.

"As much as we want to be there and help everybody, it's not helpful for the long haul," Lythgoe said. "We can't sustain that."

She noted that leadership at the health systems are working to make improvements and get help, but said getting more nurses to the Gem State is hard because of the state's low wages for healthcare workers.

"Hospitals have tried so hard to recruit, but you can't force people to come here," Lythgoe said.

Lythgoe has been working as a nurse for seven years and said her favorite part of the job is forming connections with patients and their families. While some of the excitement and relationships are still there, it's not the same, which makes the already exhausting and double-duty days even longer.

"Some people really need that physical and emotional support to make it through such an intense process of having a baby," she said. "It's completely absent now."

It's not only the exhaustion from the long shifts, it's also exhausting for Lythgoe to be treated like a bully for encouraging vaccines.

"I very much advocate for it and I will not stop advocating for it," Lythgoe said. "I don't ever want to lose that friendship with people over that. I want people to be educated with the facts and they have to make that decision for themself."

Being an obstetric nurse, Lythgoe has been there for people on the best days of their lives when helping deliver their newborns. It's troubling for her to see patients turn their backs on those same people they were once celebrating with. 

She also gets patients telling her coronavirus isn't real or misinformation regarding the vaccine.

"It feels like it's really done an injustice to nursing overall because of this one thing," Lythgoe said. "People are going to doubt the other medical advice that we give them that could lead to what we consider a sentential event or death."

Lythgoe has seen nurses quit and retire early from the added pressures the pandemic has brought to frontline workers. She admits she's had the same thoughts.

"I took a two-week break from work and truly contemplated leaving altogether," Lythgoe said.

However, being at the hospital and helping people is what she considers an honor and a privilege.

"Regardless of the unprecedented time, this is where I'm meant to be," Lythgoe said. "This is truly my calling in life.

As she continues to stay at the bedside, she continues to encourage unvaccinated people to speak with their healthcare provider and other medical professionals to make the best decision for them. She recognizes it's a choice and something people need to feel comfortable with.

"I want people to not be scared of making that decision and utilizing the resources and education that's out there to help tip that scale and help get us to the point where we're back to a healthy nation," Lythgoe said. "And hopefully with that, being able to repair the humanity that has been lost in our country."

She recognizes not everyone is eligible for the vaccine but said that is why it's important for those who are to do so. It's important to her to reduce the risk of people getting infected or critically sick and continue to fill hospitals and ICUs.

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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