Orofino,Idaho-Window on the Clearwater
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Regional healthcare capacity at dangerous level

by Dr. Kelly McGrath, Clearwater Valley Health

Usually, when a critically ill patient requires special intensive care services not available at our local hospital, it takes one or possibly two calls to regional hospitals to get the patient transferred for the needed care. Recently, North Idaho and inland northwest hospitals have stretched beyond capacity with high-volume cases and surging COVID-19 infections.

Recently, doctors have had to call up to seven different hospitals to find one able to accept critically ill patients. Some patients even have had to be transferred to hospitals almost 400 miles away. This creates incredible burden, risk and expense for patients and their families. It often separates families at a time of high stress.

As of Sunday, Aug. 8, there are no ICU beds available and only a handful of regular hospital spaces available for the entire region of Northwest Montana, Northern Idaho and Northeast Washington, including Spokane. The demands have exceeded the capacity of our region's healthcare systems. This impacts the availability of healthcare for everyone living in our region. Fortunately, although stretched, CVH and SMH have been able to continue to meet our community's local non-ICU needs.

Leading up to August, hospital systems were already stretched thin even with the lower COVID infection rates seen in spring 2021. There are many reasons for this which include patients receiving care they had deferred, patients being sicker because of delaying care, increased population growth and, of course, COVID-19 infections. Hospitals had barely been able to keep up during the summer of 2021 but now, with the Delta variant of COVID-19 driving a surge in cases, these same systems have been loaded beyond their capacity. This is the scenario feared since the start of the COVID pandemic. It has now arrived to our region.

Unfortunately, this most recent wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations is almost entirely comprised of patients who have not been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. While it is true that a few vaccinated people have been infected, they are rarely requiring hospitalization. Also complicating this situation is that we are seeing a sicker and younger mix of COVID patients with greater needs for ICU care. Staffing at regional hospitals has also become a challenge; some care teams who have been doing grueling extra work for the past 18 months have become exhausted, and some are choosing to leave their profession.

This situation impacts everyone in our community. To make a difference for our families and community, we need to embrace the basic safety measures to slow the spread of the much more powerful and transmissible Delta variant of COVID: avoid crowds, wear masks and stay home if sick. Fortunately, with an abundant supply of all three types of approved COVID vaccines, people greater than 12 years old can also help by getting vaccinated. This will likely protect them and others from needing the ICU resources in such short supply.

Photo: Dr. Kelly McGrath

Window on the Clearwater
P.O. Box 2444
Orofino, ID 83544
Phone: (208) 476-0733
Fax: (208) 476-4140