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The 25-bed St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center south of Ketchum hasn’t reached capacity during the pandemic. But, it is feeling the effects of systemwide stress, according to Dr. Terry Ahern.

Unlike many hospitals across the Idaho’s strained health-care systems, St. Luke’s Wood River is not at full capacity—but some patients might encounter delays in care, and those needing specialized treatment or an ICU bed might have to wait to be transferred to a larger facility, a senior physician at the local medical center said Thursday.

Dr. Terry Ahern, the emergency department medical director for St. Luke’s Wood River, said the hospital south of Ketchum has made some adjustments after the state activated its Crisis Standards of Care Plan last week. The hospital is treating more patients than it normally does, he said, and while people are ultimately getting the care they need, it might not be on the same level or timeline that St. Luke’s typically delivers.

“It’s not operations as usual,” Ahern said.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare activated the crisis standards statewide pursuant to a request from the St. Luke’s Health System, Idaho’s largest health-care provider. In a crisis, it allows providers to use below-normal standards, permitting them to indefinitely delay care for some people, provide decreased care for others and to treat people in unconventional settings.

The “crisis” has been record-high patient numbers pushing health-care systems to capacity and straining resources. At other St. Luke’s hospitals in Twin Falls and the greater Boise area, hospital beds and ICU units have been full, prompting the development of unconventional overflow areas with cots.

The numbers have been driven by high volumes of traditional patients and patients with COVID-19. The broader St. Luke’s Health System—which has about 600 beds—was treating 314 patients with COVID-19 on Thursday. A few days prior, the number was 280.

At St. Luke’s Wood River, patient numbers are also up, Ahern said. The hospital has 25 beds, six of which are dedicated to the birthing unit. On Thursday, the hospital had 15 inpatients, four of whom were being treated for COVID-19. The number of inpatients has recently eclipsed 20, significantly above the average, Ahern said.

The hospital is treating local COVID-19 patients—about 90% of whom are not vaccinated—and is taking a small number of non-COVID transfers from the St. Luke’s hospital in Twin Falls, Ahern told the Express. In addition, the emergency department is busier, he said, with daily patient numbers in the high teens to mid-30s.

The net effect is that the extra workload locally—combined with other locations in the St. Luke’s system operating at or beyond capacity—has prompted some changes in line with the crisis standards. Staff are working extra hours. The nursing ratio has been altered, with nurses aiding four to five patients instead of two to three.

“We’ve been able to squeeze our staff to hold more patients,” Ahern said.

In the St. Luke’s system, nonemergent surgeries—ranging from orthopedic operations to the removal of cancerous tumors—have been postponed. And, with the system “under tremendous strain,” emergency surgeries might be slightly delayed, Ahern said.

“The system is not moving as quickly and efficiently as it normally does,” he said.

In Blaine County, residents might think the situation is of little or no concern, Ahern said, but the crisis has far-ranging impacts. St. Luke’s Wood River does not have an ICU unit. If someone is in a serious car accident or suffers a heart attack and needs an ICU bed, they would normally be transferred quickly. However, if the ICU unit in Twin Falls is full, the patient might have to temporarily stay at Wood River and be treated there, Ahern said. A heart-attack victim would normally be transferred to Twin Falls within 90 minutes to two hours, Ahern said, but now that time could be longer.

Patients “are getting what they need,” Ahern said, and are not being denied care. However, the standards of care have changed, and could be diminished further if COVID-19 case projections are correct. Case numbers are expected to be high into October, putting continued strain on health-care systems.

“The projected trend is that it will continue at this pace for the next couple of weeks,” Ahern said.

The state recorded 1,354 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported. By comparison, that figure was below 50 just prior to the Fourth of July holiday. By Thursday, the state had recorded 246,749 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started in 2020.

On Sept. 20, the most recent day hospitalizations were reported, the state set a record for the number of COVID-related hospitalizations, with 760 COVID-19 patients being treated in 45 Idaho hospitals and clinics. Record numbers have been set throughout the month.

People should not delay going to the emergency room if they need immediate care, Ahern said, but can do things to help limit putting additional pressure on hospitals. He encouraged people to take precautions when driving and recreating, to get a flu shot and to take the recommended measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing a mask, avoiding large crowds and getting vaccinated against the virus.

“Just try to be as safe as possible,” he said.

In addition, Ahern and Joy Prudek, public relations manager for St. Luke’s Wood River, encouraged Blaine County residents to try to minimize the divisions that have come with the pandemic. Anyone frustrated about disinformation about the pandemic should target their frustration toward the sources of that disinformation, not the people who absorb it, Ahern said. People can also limit making assumptions about others and unite in the goal of supporting each other, Prudek said.

“I think we have to stay together as a community,” Ahern said.

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