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Treasure Valley hospitals seeing impacts to service, but COVID-19 isn’t entirely to blame

St. Luke's and Saint Alphonsus say COVID-19 cases are impacting levels of service, but so are other factors, such as an increased population and staffing shortage.

BOISE, Idaho — Treasure Valley hospitals warn people will see impacts to service and may have to endure long wait times to receive medical care. 

This comes as COVID-19 positivity rates around Idaho continue to increase, but hospital leaders said while it may be a factor in an increased need, there are several other contributing reasons.

According to St. Luke's Health dashboard, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has grown steadily over the last month.

As of July 19, the dashboard reported 36 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 at St. Luke's and two of the health system's 36 ICU patients have COVID-19.

Frank Johnson, the St. Luke's Chief Medical Officer of Boise, Elmore and McCall, said while the contagious variant has only played a small portion of the nearly 550 patients admitted to the health system's hospitals, it still has caused some effects on service. 

"In spite of the fact it's much lower than where it's been in the past year, it does have some impact," Johnson said. 

However, not all the blame can be put on coronavirus infections. 

Johnson told KTVB it has not been a regular season compared to previous years for the health system. There are more patients coming in for a variety of medical emergencies, such as surgeries, heart attacks, infections, pediatric care, mental health issues, substance abuse issues and more.

"There are lots of patients needing care, we're at higher volumes of patients needing care right now," Johnson said. 

An increased need during the summer months is pretty typical for Saint Alphonsus, especially when it comes to trauma care and treatment, according to the health system's Executive Medical Director, Patrice Burgess. 

"We've had a very heavy load on our trauma team," Burgess said. 

Burgess said Saint Alphonsus is taking care of more COVID-19 patients in the hospital lately as well, but adds it is nothing like what staff saw last year with those testing positive for COVID-19 hospitalized in their ICUs. 

The contagious BA.5 and BA.4 variants account for most cases and are believed to resist both antibodies and vaccine protections. However, those protections are keeping those infected away from area hospitals Burgess said.

She also mentioned the disease is not the main culprit impacting levels of service. 

"I think what we're noticing a little bit is we did have a stretch where people were delaying care, because of the stay-at-home order," Burgess said. "Some people were afraid to come in sometimes, the services were not as available for a period of time and so there's kind of a pent-up demand."

While both health systems may see different levels of need during the warmer months, they both agree services have been impacted more this year. One reason why is because of the growth in the Treasure Valley.

"We've got more people moving here, more people living here," Johnson said. 

Plus, just like other industries around the country, staffing shortages have been a negative impact. Many long-time healthcare workers have left the industry or some have decided to take extended time away throughout the pandemic.

"You know, you see a 'For hire' sign or 'Hiring' sign everywhere you go, particularly in the service industries and we're no different," Burgess said. 

The health systems confirm COVID-19 has impacted many of their staff members at the moment. They said they are seeing more staff members test positive, which means they have to quarantine.

"They're not in the hospital, but they also can't come to work," Burgess said. "We're having a few more workers out because it's very contagious right now."

While the current COVID-19 surge may not cause as serious of disease for many, Johnson said, he does believe the rising cases of cases in Idaho are still a reason for concern. 

"Just the numbers of patients that we have who are coming down with COVID-19, even if the percentage that gets really sick is small, the numbers are so high," Johnson said. "A small percentage of a big number is still a significant potential impact on our hospitals capacity. As we're seeing with our limited capacity, a small number can sometimes tip us over the edge."

St Luke's and Saint Alphonsus will continue to monitor cases. 

Since they are unsure of what the future holds, both Burgess and Johnson ask for people's patience if they come in for service and require any medical care.

"We're all working hard and doing the best we can," Burgess said.

"Grant one another a bit of grace as we work together to help all of our patients and our communities get the care that they need," Johnson said.

While there may be delays in getting care, both still highly encourage everyone to get the care and treatment they need when they need it. Burgess mentions hospitals have medical triage, where people with significant issues and emergencies will move up to the head of the line to get taken care of immediately.

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