POST FALLS, Idaho — As the hospitalizations continue to rise in North Idaho, Kootenai County Fire and Rescue says they now need to prioritize COVID-19 patients to other callers.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare activated crisis standards of care for hospitals in North Idaho Tuesday morning after a surge in COVID-19 cases left too few hospital beds and medical personnel to care for all the sick.
Crisis standards of care are guidelines that help healthcare providers in how to deliver the best possible care in a public health emergency. Nowhere in the state is the situation worse than in North Idaho, where a record number of COVID patients — 90% of whom are unvaccinated — are requiring more space and more care than at any time during the pandemic.
COVID-19 patients are now being treated in a converted conference space at Kootenai Health. ICU nurses are now caring for more patients and the hospital has had to turn away transfers.
With Kootenai Health going into these crisis standards, some medical procedures are having to wait. North Idaho has the state's lowest rates of vaccination against COVID-19, DHW added. Someone struggling to breathe may no longer get a ventilator. Someone badly hurt in a car wreck or accident may no longer get a bed in the hospital. Someone near death from illness may receive only "comfort care" as hospital staff use limited medicine and life-saving equipment on patients likelier to pull through, DHW said.
Under crisis standards, hospital beds, medicine and equipment such as ventilators may be allocated to those deemed most likely to survive, with the goal of saving as many lives as possible under extraordinary circumstances.
This comes as doctors say resources are being stretched to their limits. They aren't the only ones impacted by the increase in COVID patients.
Fire and Rescue have about a 15% increase in calls right now from last year at this time, Fire Chief Chris Way said. With more calls, comes more wait times. Days, hours or just a few minutes could be a matter of life and death.
"We're seeing really, really sick patients," Way said. "We know that some of them won't survive, I mean just because they've waited so long to get care or because we're in this position of having hundreds of people that need care at the same time."
He hasn't seen the region this bad since the COVID-19 pandemic first began and it's changing the way his crews take care of patients, he said. Kootenai Health Chief of Staff Dr. Robert Scoggins said during a press conference on Tuesday that the hospital caring for the largest number of COVID-19 patients its handled since the pandemic began, with 113 total and 39 in critical care. Nineteen patients are on ventilators.
"The acuity of the patient is getting higher and so we're just seeing sicker and sicker patients that need the hospital and need the emergency room," Way added.
Fire and Rescue are now having to prioritize certain calls over others. If someone is having shortness of breath, they will be sent an ambulance faster than someone with injuries like bone breaks or illnesses not related to COVID.
"Before, we probably didn't have a person having to wait for an ambulance or, even a fire engine to get there," he said. "Now we're getting busier to where we see that happening."
State and local officials are begging, once again, for community members to get vaccinated.
“We have reached an unprecedented and unwanted point in the history of our state. We have taken so many steps to avoid getting here, but yet again we need to ask more Idahoans to choose to receive the COVID-19 vaccine," Idaho Gov. Brad Little said. "More Idahoans need to choose to receive the vaccine so we can minimize the spread of the disease and reduce the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, many of which involve younger Idahoans and are preventable with safe and effective vaccines."
More than 95% of COVID-19 patients in Idaho hospitals are unvaccinated.
"If you look at the numbers right now, the unvaccinated people are the ones that we are seeing that are sick or sicker, not that people who have been vaccinated don't get ill, but they certainly don't have the severe signs and symptoms and they aren't the ones typically being hospitalized," Way said.
The team tries to stay out of politics and will come if you call them regardless of political affiliation, personal choices or vaccine status, he added.
"It's become not so much about medicine and more about politics and personal belief," he said. "That's a real struggle to dive in the middle of."
Way is in constant communication with Kootenai Health, and talks to them daily to find out their bed availability and stress level, he said.
"We're still dealing with an increased fire load, we're dealing with increased medical calls, and we're dealing with an increase in population to this area which is exploding," he added. "I think that those three things combined have really made it a challenging summer."
To help out Fire and Rescue, firefighters and EMS are urging community members to be extra cautious about their health and safety. Also, they are asking for people to remember the region is in the midst of fire season, which has already used up and continues to use a ton of resources.
So far, no one has been rejected from Kootenia Health once Way's team brought them there. They worry that in the future, as cases continue to climb, there won't be enough beds or space, which may lead to more fatalities.