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Overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, rural Idaho hospitals struggle to provide care with minimal resources

Minidoka Memorial is not currently operating under crisis standards of care, but officials say that may be the reality if the COVID-19 situation continues as it is.

RUPERT, Idaho — The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly taken a serious toll on large hospitals, like Saint Alphonsus in Boise. However, the surge in cases and hospitalizations is also impacting hospitals in rural communities.

Smaller hospitals often don't have intensive care unit (ICU) floors and may have as few as one or two ICU beds to treat patients. During the recent spike in hospitalizations, rural hospitals are left scrambling to make room for those in need.

While COVID-19 is no stranger to medical experts at Minidoka Memorial Hospital in Rupert, the Delta variant has different, more aggressive and more contagious characteristics. This is causing the hospital's resources to dwindle daily.

Minidoka Memorial is not currently operating under crisis standards of care, but officials say that may be the reality if the COVID-19 situation continues as it is right now.

"We have had beds in the hallway here with oxygen tanks up to them because their stats are low and they need oxygen now," said Kelsey Phillips, an emergency room charge nurse at Minidoka Memorial Hospital. "It's never been pure chaos like it is now. Some days when you're here it's all you can do; to get out of one set of PPE to the next, to go to the next room, to try to take a big breath in and gasp and go into the next room."

Phillips said emergency rooms are constantly full of COVID-19 patients, and the waiting rooms are overflowing as well. The small hospital has 30 beds available for COVID-19 patients and one single ICU bed.

"It is scary because we have never had to do this before and, you know, every life matters to us," she said. "We can only do what we humanly possibly can do with the resources we have. And on top of COVID, we have other emergencies."

More than 95% of the patients at being treated for COVID-19 at Minidoka Memorial Hospital are unvaccinated.

"You see the wife's in the corners curled up crying. You want to be there to support them but knowing that they have refused to be vaccinated, it's hard to support that because it could have been prevented," Phillips said. "This can be prevented."

Tyler Dschaak, an emergency physician, has never seen a hospital situation like this in his entire career, especially concerning younger patients struggling to fight off the virus.

"It's really hard. We still want to help them, that's what we are here for but it's frustrating that people won't do it for whatever reason," he said. "In the last two weeks, we have gone through the same amount of oxygen that we would use in 6 months on a regular basis. I mean it's just crazy. Everything that we have as a resource is limited and eventually, it's going to run out."

Because Minidoka Memorial Hospital only has one ICU bed, patients in need of higher levels of care are often sent to large hospitals in Boise, Twin Falls or Pocatello. However, those hospitals are also full. Out-of-state hospitals have told Minidoka they cannot accept any new patients.

"Our whole purpose is to take care of patients. That's our number one goal is to make sure that everyone is taken care of," Dschaak said. "But when you've got a lot of patients that are COVID patients, require isolation, high volumes, we just don't have the capacity to get people back as fast as possible and we are having to send patients back home that we typically wouldn't. We are sending 30-40-year-olds home with oxygen tanks that we would normally admit to the hospital, but they are just not 'sick enough' right now to take up a hospital bed. This is my community, this is my people and to see them getting sick and not being able to help everybody, it's tough." 

If patients do get a bed a Minidoka, they largely battle the virus without the support of family.

Brent Griffin is visiting his 94-year-old mother-in-law who has been in the hospital for several days battling COVID-19. He isn't able to hear her or touch her; all he can do is wave through a glass window.

"To be in a situation where you can't be with them when they are close to death, thinking that they are going to die and they are going to die without you there," Griffin said. "I will tell you just to look through them from a window and try and visit with them that way. It's pretty hard, you know?" 

Both of Griffin's parents were treated for COVID-19 last year at Minidoka Memorial. While they survived, the virus was extremely hard on them. 

"They are both in their late 80s and not to have family be able to come in with them and visit with them and hold their hands and do all those kinds of things, it really affected them," Griffin said. "There were many times that he just really wanted to give up." 

Griffin's parents' lives have permanently changed in nearly every aspect. However, he remains thankful that he still has the opportunity to see his loved ones, which isn't the case for the friends and families of the more than 2,700 Idahoans who lost their battle with COVID-19.

"It's really hard to put yourself in their position, thinking if that was your husband on the bed dying and you can't be with them or your children cant come in, it's hard to just let them sit there and watch it happen," Phillips said. "If they could just walk a day in our shoes, they would understand why we encourage them so much to get the vaccination because we don't want patients to die, and it's hard on us when we have to kind of chose which patients get treated [and] which patients might not."

While medical workers across the state continue to struggle with finding hope, resources and the light at the end of the tunnel, they continue to show up and protect their community.

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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