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'It's out of control:' Idaho physicians urge vaccination ahead of looming COVID-19 surge

Positive tests are spiking once more, while ICU admissions of seriously ill COVID-19 patients doubled in just weeks. Almost all of them are unvaccinated.

BOISE, Idaho — Physicians from three Idaho health systems warned Thursday that the state is poised on the precipice of another deadly COVID-19 surge that can only be headed off by more Idahoans making the choice to get vaccinated. 

At St. Luke's and Saint Alphonsus, coronavirus hospital admissions have doubled or more than doubled since July 1, and ICU beds are filling rapidly with people who are desperately sick. Almost every COVID-19 patient in the hospital is unvaccinated. 

Dr. Steven Nemerson, the chief clinical officer at Saint Alphonsus, said not a single COVID patient currently in a Saint Alphonsus intensive care unit had gotten the vaccine. 

"All the patients that are at risk of losing their lives, it is because they are not vaccinated," he said. 

Statewide, 683,866 people - or about 40% of Idaho's population - have gotten vaccinated against the infectious illness that has killed 2,165 Idahoans and sickened tens of thousands more. 

That's not enough, said  Primary Health CEO Dr. David Peterman, who said his clinics have seen a spike of positive coronavirus tests in people of every age group. 

Peterman said Primary Health and its testing numbers function as "the canary in the coal mine" in terms of providing the best indication of how many people will end up in the hospital. 

Because older Idahoans, who made up the majority of deaths before the vaccine was widely available, have had higher rates of getting vaccinated, he said, the average age of infection is shifting younger. 

Positive tests in people ages 12 to 18 jumped by 30% at Primary Health last week, he said, while in 19- to 40-year-olds - "the bar crowd" - positive tests doubled.

"It's out of control," he said. "I don't know how to put this. This has nothing to do with politics. The vaccine prevents hospitalizations and deaths."

Peterman said some of the rising numbers are likely due to unmasked gatherings of unvaccinated people for the Fourth of July holiday. The delta variant of coronavirus, which is estimated as 100 to 1000 times as contagious as the original strain, is another likely contributor, he said.

"The disease we are dealing with today is in some respects, a different disease. It's scary. It is very aggressive," Peterman said of the delta variant. "We are very, very concerned."

St. Luke's Health System Chief Physician Executive Dr. Jim Souza said the rising caseload has the potential to overextend Idaho hospitals' ability to care for all the sick people coming in - a scenario doctors and public health officials have warned against from the beginning of the pandemic. 

"That is the straw that is straining the back of our care capacity," Souza said. "The problem with this straw, if you will, it has the potential to become an entire bale of hay over just a few weeks, and that would be a major problem."

Although the situation inside St. Luke's can change hour to hour, he said, on Wednesday 90 of the hospital's 99 critical care beds were full.

Public health officials have stressed that limited healthcare capacity would not just affect COVID patients, but can also prevent those with other serious illnesses, heart attacks, strokes, or injuries from a car wreck or fall from getting the level of care they need.

"Contingency plans and surge plans, they're all there and they are ready to be dusted off," Souza said. "We don't have to do that if we could get everyone to get vaccinated, vaccinated, vaccinated."

All three health systems have mandated that all their employees get vaccinated against COVID-19 by a September deadline in order to keep their jobs, although there are some medical and religious exemptions available. 

The doctors said that most of their employees back that policy, and that they are willing to speak with and answer questions of those who have reservations about the vaccine. Ultimately, however, all three said that policy is the right thing to do to keep patients and staff safe.  

Souza said hospital workers have "a sacred trust" with patients and their families, and with one another. Some St. Luke's staff members will likely choose to look for work elsewhere rather than get vaccinated, he said, but so be it.

"We'll do whatever it takes: Reduce elective work, move staff to more needed areas, but we will not sacrifice safety. Ever," he said.

Peterman agreed, noting that Primary Health, like St. Luke's and Saint Alphonsus, already has a vaccine requirement that includes a yearly flu shot. 

"I have zero concern of not having enough employees because of a policy we have had in place for 10 years," he said. "I took the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. And in the position I am in, absolutely it makes sense. It is part of our culture that we require our employees to be vaccinated to keep the patients safe and to keep ourselves safe."

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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