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Viewpoint: Crush of COVID-19 patients puts enormous strain on Idaho hospitals

Leaders at Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's say the COVID patients in their ICUs are younger, sicker, and the mortality rate is higher than during the December surge.

BOISE, Idaho — The crush of COVID-19 continues to put enormous strain on Idaho hospitals, both in terms of available beds and on the medical professionals themselves. 

The state is in the thick of a fifth COVID-19 surge. Medical professionals have said the patients they are treating are younger now, many in their 30s and 40s, and nearly all are unvaccinated.

On Wednesday, Sept. 29, the state reported numbers showing COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions dropped slightly from record levels. However, both categories are still well above previous totals. Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said we have not yet seen the peak in hospitalizations.

The state reported 749 COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide, down from the peak of 793. 196 of them are in the ICU. That's down from the peak of 213 the week before.

Across St. Luke's Health System, as of Friday morning, 264 of their 607 patients admitted to the hospital are COVID-19 positive. 66 of the 78 patients in the ICU are COVID patients. 97% of the COVID-19 patients in the ICU are unvaccinated, according to St. Luke's

Across Saint Alphonsus, 158 of the 464 patients admitted to the hospital are COVID-19 positive. A spokesman told KTVB that Saint Al's doesn't release its ICU numbers, but both its primary and secondary ICUs are full, and they've opened another ICU space. A majority of patients in the Saint Alphonsus ICU are COVID-19 patients.

During the taping of this week's Viewpoint, leaders with Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's talked about the COVID-19 patients they're treating now in their ICUs.

"Our populations are much younger than we saw a year ago in the June and July area," Saint Alphonsus President and CEO Odette Bolano said. "We had, sadly, our youngest death from COVID this month, probably a couple of weeks ago, a 20-year-old. And when I go and visit with the nursing staff and I inquire about the age, they're all between 30 and 50, early 50s. Our hope is that people are listening and acting accordingly. We are still one of the lowest vaccinated states in the United States."

"In our adult ICUs our youngest patient today (Thursday) is 22 years old," St. Luke's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jim Souza said. "About 70% of our patients are 55 years or younger in the intensive care unit. And in the intensive care unit, 25% are younger than 40. They're sicker. They're staying longer. The average length of stay in the ICU is up by two whole days, and their mortality rate is significantly higher than it was in the December surge."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidance urging pregnant women to get vaccinated. Dr. Souza agrees with the guidance and said St. Luke's has had some tragic cases involving unvaccinated, expectant mothers.

"I think both of us on this call have seen this," Dr. Souza said. "Some of our most tragic cases have been young moms and their babies, and we've lost moms and we've lost babies. I'd remind everybody that pregnancy is a natural state of immune suppression. That is specifically how moms carry foreign tissue and don't reject it. So that immunosuppression in pregnancy is playing out and we're seeing really tragic cases."

Souza and Bolano also talked about the enormous pressure and emotional strain their staffs are under, and the adjustments the hospital systems have made to meet the challenges of the recent COVID-19 patient surge. 

Viewpoint airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 right after Meet the Press on KTVB.

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