The coronavirus is spreading so quickly in Idaho that the state has decided to allow all of its hospitals to ration care as they struggle to keep up with the onslaught of patients.
“The massive increase of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization in all areas of the state has exhausted existing resources,” the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced Thursday, expanding a similar declaration from last week that was limited to the northern part of the state.
The department said it was activating what it called “crisis standards of care,” which help doctors and nurses decide how to allocate resources during an overwhelming public health emergency, like the coronavirus pandemic. Crisis standards can also offer legal protection to medical staff who are forced to make hard decisions about which patients they should prioritize.
Overstretched hospitals in other states, including Hawaii and Alaska, are being forced to make similar decisions about caring for patients.
Idaho’s health department said a large health system, St. Luke’s, had asked for the crisis standards to be activated statewide, and a state advisory committee had agreed.
Under the guidelines, the department said, people seeking treatment may have to wait for a bed to open up or use a bed in an unconventional setting, such as a conference room. Some may be moved out of state ― Idaho residents are already crowding hospitals in neighboring Washington, frustrating officials there who say Idaho should be doing more to stem the spread of the virus.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) has encouraged residents to wear masks but has long resisted a statewide mandate. Some localities, however, have implemented their own rules about mask-wearing.
The health department warned that some people may not get the care they need, especially if they are not likely to survive. A ventilator may be given to a younger or more healthy person who might recover more rapidly.
“Our hospitals and healthcare systems need our help,” Dave Jeppesen, the director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said in a statement urging people to get vaccinated. “The situation is dire ― we don’t have enough resources to adequately treat the patients in our hospitals, whether you are there for COVID-19 or a heart attack or because of a car accident.”
Not all Idaho hospitals will move toward rationing care, the department said. If a hospital is managing under normal standards of operation, it can continue to do so.
But the picture is certainly grim. Idaho is currently experiencing a wave of COVID-19 cases rivaling its all-time peak late last fall.
A registered nurse in Idaho told HuffPost that the rural hospital where she works is using every available ventilator and discussing plans to convert conference rooms to improvised treatment centers, but the hospital is still processing patients with emergencies like needing an appendectomy. She asked to remain anonymous because she’s concerned about professional reprisal.
“We have a lot of new grads on our floor, because I think the first wave of COVID really burnt people out,” she said. “We are down significantly the amount of nurses that we need.”
Nationwide, hospitals are saying that they do not have enough nurses to meet demand. But the Idaho nurse said her colleagues were mostly frustrated with management’s unwillingness to increase pay as working conditions have gotten a lot more difficult.
She said nearly all of the COVID-19 patients she sees are unvaccinated ― and many have regrets.
“One gal sticks out in my mind. She was so pissed off,” the nurse said, describing a woman who came to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. The patient lived with her daughter and son-in-law, and she had trusted her son-in-law to do research and keep up with the news. However, he had discouraged the woman from getting vaccinated. The patient eventually recovered.
The Idaho Division of Public Health reports that 51% of state residents have been fully vaccinated.
“Think about those around you, and think about yourself, or think about your loved ones,” the nurse said when asked whether she had a message for people still hesitant to get vaccinated. “If your mom or your dad or your children got sick with COVID and had to be hospitalized, would you regret your decision?”