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Inside the ICU: St. Luke's healthcare workers give perspective on handling the challenging COVID-19 surge

The Idaho medical landscape continues to see challenges as more and more unvaccinated Idahoans are hospitalized with COVID-19.

BOISE, Idaho — Editors note: Due to COVID-19 restrictions and safety measures, St. Luke’s Health System provided KTVB with raw video interviews from inside their hospitals for perspective on what staff is dealing with during the recent surge across Idaho.  

Frontline healthcare workers at St. Luke’s continue to work around the clock caring for very sick patients battling COVID-19 in the ICU.

“There is a 39-year-old intubated, unvaccinated, paralyzed, sedated with COVID-19,” said Dr. Jim Souza, the Chief Physician Executive for St. Luke's Health System.  

If the unvaccinated 39-year-old does recover, Souza said they will go back to a much different life.

“If this 39-year-old can survive, that’s not going to be waking up, standing up from this bed and walking out," he explained. "He is going to be terribly disabled by this."

Idaho hospitals have faced significant challenges during the pandemic, most notably in late 2020 when there were serious concerns about the state of the medical system as more and more people needed serious treatment and ICU beds began to fill up. Frontline healthcare workers say right now feels worse than the previous pandemic peak.

“I actually think now is busier than it was last year in November and December. Seeing a lot of sicker patients, too,” said Ross Armstrong, a respiratory therapist in the St. Luke’s Critical Care Unit.

Armstrong has worked at St. Luke’s for 15 years. Like other frontline healthcare workers, he is frustrated with the current situation as staff works to treat COVID-19 patients with a common denominator.

“All the patients we have in COVID here are unvaccinated patients," Armstrong said. "It’s getting to be more frustrating because there is a way to take care of it with getting vaccinated, but there is so much controversy around that for no reason at all. That’s what frustrating about it, it doesn’t need to be happening."

But it is happening, and it is resulting in tragic outcomes every single day.

“Unfortunately, too many instances of standing next to families here in the hallway outside the door as they look in through the glass tearfully while their loved one dies," said Dr. William Dittrich, a Pulmonary Critical Care Physician with St. Luke’s. "That happened right behind me just last week, a 48 year-old patient while her four children stood outside the door [and] said goodbye."

On top of everything he is dealing with right now, Dittrich is concerned about what is yet to come.

“What we are seeing now in our ICUs and our hospitals is people who got infected two weeks ago at the fair or at a party or a get-together," he explained. "There is even more of them out there now than there are here now and so I’m really worried about what’s coming in a week and in two weeks and I’m really worried about what that’s going to do to our staff, my friends here, our colleagues, because I already see what it’s doing to them now."

Frontline healthcare workers continue to advocate for the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as they continue to treat a vast majority of very sick people that are not vaccinated and in grave health.

“Really, truly only happening to unvaccinated people," Dittrich said. "In all the time that I’ve been taking care of patients here in the last year and half, I’ve had one patient that I’ve taken care of that was vaccinated, and that was someone who had an organ transplant and was immune-suppressed."

The call from the Idaho medical community to the rest of the state is clear: they ask everyone to do what they can to help the situation, a situation getting worse and worse by the week.

“Masking, wash our hands, trying to distance somewhat. I know those things are hard and I know people just want to get back to normal life and be together and enjoy each other and I do too," Dittrich said. "But I want to be able to do that with all the people and not lose anymore."

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