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Idaho doctors express frustration, grave warnings as COVID-19 crisis state looms

"We continue to lose people who didn't have to die. We continue to comfort families after a death that didn't have to happen."

BOISE, Idaho — One Treasure Valley doctor broke down in tears Thursday as he spoke about his exhausted hospital staff's determination in the face of an onslaught of COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

Another described delaying or canceling even medically necessary - not elective - procedures in order to provide for more urgently ill patients. A third described the endless, frantic shuffling around of medical workers and equipment to care for the flood of patients as "rearranging the chairs on the Titanic." 

"We are not even close to the worst, and that scares us because we went into this to care for people to help people, to save them, and we can't," West Valley Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Augustus said.

It's a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, and things are as bad now in Idaho as they have ever been. Already, infections are surpassing the level they were at during the bleak, deadly winter of 2020, and the death toll continues to rise. 

The critically ill and dying patients at West Valley, Saint Alphonsus, and St. Luke's are younger than they were in the past, the doctors said, and almost all are unvaccinated. 

At Saint Alphonsus, Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Steven Nemerson said, employees are exhausted and overwhelmed by the number of patients they are tasked with helping shift after shift after shift. 

The crew will continue to help everyone they can, as much as they can, for as long as they can, he said.

"We are reaching those limits now," he said. "It's time to expect that things are going to be different when you need healthcare for the short-term foreseeable future. It's not going to be as quick, and there is going to be prioritization based on how sick you are. You should be prepared to take care of yourself at home when possible." 

Someone experiencing a medical emergency - especially something like signs of a heart attack - should still seek treatment in a hospital, he noted. 

Idaho has not yet entered crisis care standards, under which doctors will have to decide which patients receive their limited ventilators, oxygen, beds, and time. Gov. Brad Little said Tuesday that the state is "teetering on the brink" of that scenario, begging Idahoans to get vaccinated against the deadly virus. 

Dr. Frank Johnson, chief medical officer at St. Luke's, said he isn't sure how else to convey the gravity of the situation to a largely indifferent public.

St. Luke's needs help, he said. A year ago, average Idahoans aided the hospital system by staying home, wearing masks, and avoiding large gatherings. 

"Today the help we need is, get vaccinated. That is the tool we need to shut this down," Johnson said. 

Augustus agreed. Like in the other two hospitals, 95% of West Valley patients are unvaccinated.

"We continue to lose people who didn't have to die. We continue to comfort families after a death that didn't have to happen," he said. "There is heartache and there is pain, and there are folks who are suffering, who don't need to suffer. And we need to do our part to help."

St. Luke's and Saint Alphonsus have mandated vaccines for all staff at their facilities; West Valley Medical has not. 

Both Nemerson and Johnson said they believed their hospitals would lose relatively few employees over the mandate, but stressed that even amid the strain on staff, requiring vaccines was the right call. 

"The downside of not having vaccination for our teams is too great, too much of a risk for the safety of our colleagues, for our staff who is in the hospital when there are unvaccinated individuals, too great a risk to our patients if we have unvaccinated staff and really too great a risk for our community," Johnson said. "[Losing unvaccinated employees] is a consequence that we will accept because the alternative is really not acceptable."

Like in the earlier days of the pandemic, Nemerson said, he is once again advising people to limit gatherings, stay home from concerts and large events, and wear their masks. Sending children to school in a classroom where masks are not worn is a risk, he said, even though the disease seems to affect young children less than adults. 

Ultimately, he said, something will have to change to ward off the bleakest projections for the pandemic's path.

"It's totally preventable by vaccine, and the pandemic we are experiencing now is in people who aren't vaccinated and just don't care," he said.

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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