Idaho's Largest Hospital Implements Health Care Rationing, Others Allowed to Follow Suit

Idaho's largest hospital network implemented health care rationing due to an influx of COVID-19 patients this week, and Idaho public health leaders expanded the rationing statewide on Thursday.

St. Luke's Health System asked state health leaders to allow "crisis standards of care" on Wednesday as the increase in COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization has exhausted medical resources. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare then made the announcement allowing hospitals across the state to follow suit.

"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," Idaho Department of Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said in a statement.

Crisis care standards mean that the scarce resources available for COVID-19 patients will be allotted to the patients most likely to survive. Other patients are treated with less effective methods or given pain relief and other palliative care in the most dire cases.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Hospital Crisis Care
Hospitals across Idaho have been given permission to ration health care as COVID-19 cases overwhelm the medical system on September 16, 2021. A medical worker prepares to treat a patient with coronavirus in the intensive care unit at a hospital on May 1, 2020, in Leonardtown, Maryland. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Idaho is one of the least vaccinated U.S. states, with only about 40 percent of its residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Only Wyoming and West Virginia have lower vaccination rates.

Thursday's move came a week after Idaho officials started allowing health care rationing at hospitals in northern parts of the state.

Jeppesen urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor settings.

"Our hospitals and healthcare systems need our help. The best way to end crisis standards of care is for more people to get vaccinated. It dramatically reduces your chances of having to go to the hospital if you do get sick from COVID-19," Jeppesen said.

One in every 201 Idaho residents tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The mostly rural state ranks 12th in the U.S. for newly confirmed cases per capita. More than 1,300 new coronavirus cases were reported to the state on Wednesday, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Hospitalizations have skyrocketed. On Monday, the most recent data available from the state showed that 678 people were hospitalized statewide with coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds has stayed mostly flat for the last two weeks at 70 people each day — suggesting the state may have reached the limit of its ability to treat ICU patients.

Though all of the state's hospitals can now ration health care resources as needed, some might not need to take that step. Each hospital will decide how to implement the crisis standards of care in its own facility, public health officials said.

Kootenai Health in the city of Coeur d'Alene was the first hospital in the state to officially enter crisis standards of care last week.

At the time, Chief of Staff Dr. Robert Scoggins said some patients were being treated in a conference center that had been converted into a field hospital. Others received treatment in hallways or in converted emergency room lobbies. Urgent and elective surgeries are on hold across much of the state.

On Wednesday, nearly 92 percent of all of the COVID-19 patients in St. Luke's hospitals were unvaccinated. Sixty-one of the hospital's 78 ICU patients had COVID-19. St. Luke's physicians have pleaded with Idaho residents for months to get vaccinated and take steps to slow the spread of coronavirus, warning that hospitals beds were quickly running out.

The health care crisis isn't just impacting hospitals — primary care physicians and medical equipment suppliers are also struggling to cope with the crush of coronavirus-related demand.

Primary Health Medical Group, Idaho's largest independent primary care and urgent care system, late last month was forced to shorten operating hours because its waiting rooms were so packed with patients that staffers were staying hours past closing in order to see them all. Meanwhile, the company was dealing with higher-than-normal numbers of staffers out sick because they had been exposed to coronavirus in the community or had symptoms and were awaiting tests. Vaccination provides strong protection against becoming seriously ill with coronavirus, but the highly contagious Delta variant can still cause "breakthrough" cases in vaccinated people.

As case numbers continued to increase, some of Primary Health Medical Group's 21 clinics in southwestern Idaho have had to stop operating on weekends or close certain days of the week, said CEO Dr. David Peterman.

Now the medical group is also preparing to monitor its patients who are released earlier than they normally would be from the hospital after emergencies, Peterman said.

"We will see more visits with patients that are avoiding the emergency room and patients who are sicker and need more care," Peterman said. "We are setting up a system right now to make sure over this weekend that we are immediately notified if one of our patients is discharged early from the hospital so we can make sure those patients are OK."

Resources have been exhausted across the medical system, Peterman said.

"This is heart-wrenching. I've practiced medicine in southwest Idaho for 40 years and I have never seen anything like this," he said. "I feel for the doctors and the nurses and the staff in the hospital who are making very difficult decisions."

Idaho Hospital
Idaho's public health leaders have expanded health care rationing statewide amid a massive increase in the number of coronavirus patients requiring hospitalization. In this September 10, 2021 file photo an emergency department sign is photographed at Kootenai Health, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Young Kwak, File/AP Photo