‘Teetering on the brink:’ Little deploys federal workers, National Guard to hospitals

Citing a drastic shortage in hospital space — and COVID-19-related closures at several schools — Gov. Brad Little Tuesday deployed 370 medical employees and National Guard troops to overwhelmed Idaho hospitals.

The deployments won’t directly affect schools. Instead, Little described the moves as a last-ditch attempt to head off health-care rationing at hospitals, a practice known as crisis standards of care.

“We are pulling out all of the stops,” Little said during an eight-minute video address Tuesday.

Little cited one grim statistic from the state’s current and most severe coronavirus spike. This morning, only four of the state’s nearly 400 adult ICU beds are open.

“We are dangerously close to activating statewide crisis standards of care – a historic step that means Idahoans in need of health care could receive a lesser standard of care or may be turned away altogether,” Little said in a news release. “In essence, someone would have to decide who can be treated and who cannot. This affects all of us, not just patients with COVID-19.”

No Idaho hospital has formally applied to the state to implement crisis standards of care, Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the Department of Health and Welfare’s public health division. “(But) there’s a lot of conversation about it,” Shaw-Tulloch said during a media briefing Tuesday afternoon.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions have hit all-time peaks. On Saturday, a record 500 Idahoans were hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases. COVID-19-related ICU admissions soared to a record 160 on Sunday. But while crowding is one factor in Idaho’s hospital, staffing is the larger concern, Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Tuesday. By seeking reinforcements, Jeppesen said, the state might be able to forestall crisis standards of care.

Little is assigning 150 National Guard troops to short-staffed hospitals. An additional 200 medical and administrative staffers will be available through a U.S. General Services Administration contract. The Department of Defense will send a 20-member medical response team to overburdened health care facilities in North Idaho.

Little incorporated a personal experience into Tuesday’s comments. He said he toured a Boise ICU Monday evening — nearly full with COVID-19 patients, all unvaccinated, most breathing only with the help of a machine. The average age of the patient: 43.

”What I saw was heartbreaking,” he said.

(More details on the tour, with comments from House Speaker Scott Bedke, from Clark Corbin of the Idaho Capital Sun.)

While Idaho’s health care system is “teetering on the brink,” Little said, the state’s schools are also feeling the effects of the latest coronavirus wave. Several schools have already closed or shifted to online learning. And while the state’s overall new case numbers were relatively flat last week, new cases among 5- to 17-year-olds increased by 21 percent.

So on Tuesday, Little renewed his appeal to Idahoans who are on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Please choose to receive the vaccine now to protect lives, help our exhausted medical staff, keep health care access available to all of us, keep our workforce healthy, and keep our kids in school,” Little said.

Little’s latest vaccine appeal drew a sharp response from a political adversary, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin.

“It was shameful for Brad to suggest today that Idahoans must make a specific medical choice in order to show love for their neighbors,” McGeachin said in a tweet Tuesday afternoon. “I trust YOU to make your own health choices.”

Of masks and testing: coronavirus in Idaho schools

During Tuesday’s media briefing, Jeppesen endorsed the current Centers for Disease Control school guidelines, which call for students, school staff and visitors to wear face coverings.

However, he stopped short of saying whether he thinks students are unsafe in schools with no mask requirements.

School districts are addressing the masking issue at the local level, and the response has been mixed. A handful of districts, such as Boise and Blaine County, are requiring masks. West Ada, the state’s largest district, is allowing parents to opt their kids out of mask requirements.

Even with childhood cases rising — and with cases among 5- to 12-year-olds increasing more rapidly than any other age group, Shaw-Tulloch said Tuesday — Health and Welfare is not releasing school- or district-level COVID-19 data.

State officials are trying to track potential outbreaks by maintaining school liaisons in each of Idaho’s seven health districts, deputy state epidemiologist Kathryn Turner said Tuesday.

State officials are also hoping a $30 million COVID-19 testing plan will identify hotspots.  The state is just beginning to take applications for the voluntary, federally funded plan, and already, three districts have registered.

“I think that’s going to be a critical strategy moving forward,” Turner said.

Idaho’s vaccination numbers: more details

As we’ve been reporting for several weeks, Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccinations are rebounding.

Last week, the state administered nearly 30,000 vaccines. That’s far below the peak from early April, when more than 90,000 Idahoans received a shot within the span of a week — but nonetheless, it’s a sign the vaccination numbers are climbing.

But it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. The current numbers also include third COVID-19 vaccine doses, now recommended for people with compromised immune systems.

Third vaccine doses — booster shots — are not yet readily available. But that could come this fall.

Since Aug. 13, 2,255 Idahoans have received a third COVID-19 vaccination dose, Idaho Immunization Program director Sarah Leeds said Tuesday.

What does this new math mean, in terms of Idaho’s uphill push to boost vaccination rates, which remain among the lowest in the nation?

The third dose numbers do not affect the state’s count of “fully vaccinated” Idahoans, Department of Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said Tuesday. That count still reflects the number of people who have met basic vaccination requirements: two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

As of Tueday, 733,269 Idahoans are counted as fully vaccinated.

Let’s look at how the weekly numbers have been trending over the past month — because it also illustrates an uptick in the vaccination rate.

Date Fully vaccinated Idahoans One-week change
July 30 691,789 5,974
Aug. 6 698,267 6,478
Aug. 13 705,427 7,160
Aug. 20 714,645 9,218
Aug. 27 727,815 13,170

We’ll continue to track the vaccination numbers — and all the coronavirus metrics — and report on them weekly.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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