Last week in Idaho Falls, only four of 39 staffed intensive care unit beds were available, according to federal hospital data.
Two days into this week, local hospitals are stretched even thinner.
“We are and have been at 100 percent capacity,” Kenneth Krell, who directs Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s ICU, said in a text message Tuesday morning. His hospital has 29 staffed ICU beds — the bulk of the region’s less than four dozen ICU beds.
Idaho Falls hospitals have it worse than the rest of the state, on average. That’s in large part because eastern Idaho has become a hotbed for new coronavirus infections after regional health officials stepped away from issuing restrictions nearly two weeks ago.
In a prepared statement, Bryon Reed, chairman of the Eastern Idaho Public Health board, said stopping the infection surge “should not require a health order.”
“We, as a community, know what must be done to stop this rapid spread of sickness,” he said.
Here are the important metrics:
— Local infection rates have risen 80% since March 1, three days before the health board said it would stop routinely issuing mask mandates. The region was averaging 66.7 cases each day the week before March 1. This Monday, infection rates hit 118.7 daily.
— COVID-19 hospitalizations are up. On March 1, 30 locals were hospitalized with the infectious disease. A week later, a total of 35 were. This Monday, hospitals were treating 40 local COVID-19 patients.
— Roughly 88% of ICU beds in Idaho Falls hospitals were full on a given day last week. The state’s peak ICU bed use rate within the past week was 67% on March 8, according to federal reports.
— Eastern Idaho is home to about a quarter-million people. The sprawling rural area accounts for a large share of coronavirus infections in the 1.8 million population state.
— Six counties in the health district were listed in the state’s top 10 counties for highest coronavirus case counts last week. That figure doesn’t account for population either. Ada County, where 481,000 people live, was 12th for new cases.
— The eastern Idaho counties topping state charts were: Bonneville (1st); Madison (2nd); Jefferson (3rd); Lemhi (7th); Teton (8th) and Fremont (10th). In southeastern Idaho, Bingham and Bannock were fourth and fifth, respectively.
Theories explaining the region’s surge differ. Many experts and officials have said it’s because fewer people are wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands.
“Sadly, while COVID-19 case numbers continue to drop across the state, Bonneville County is experiencing this year’s most rapid rise of positive cases,” Reed said. “Along with a high active case rate, our hospital system is again experiencing an alarming number of admissions due to the virus. It is heartbreaking and unnecessary to have this level of sickness and loss of life at this very late stage of the pandemic.”
Krell said in a text that message that the “EIPH Experiment in a free for all has failed miserably.”
Casey Jackman, an administrator at Idaho Falls Community Hospital, said in an email that his 10-bed ICU is at 80% capacity. Both patients with and without COVID-19 are being admitted at high rates, he said.
“We still have some capacity but since the mask mandate was lifted, we have seen a resurgence of COVID (positive) patients needing hospitalization,” Jackman wrote.
Are more infectious variants causing this? Evidence is murky.
State health department spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said variants had only been found in two health districts in the Boise and Nampa area: Southwest District Health and Central District Health. The state’s website said Tuesday morning it has spotted 22 instances of variants by sequencing 363 virus test samples.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct information about how many ICU beds are in eastern Idaho.
Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.