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St. Luke’s Wood River has added Saturday COVID-19 testing hours at its main campus in Ketchum.

One day after the United States recorded its deadliest day yet from COVID-19 cases, a prominent Wood River Valley doctor expressed heightened concern about rising case counts and life-threatening medical complications caused by the virus.

Dr. Frank Batcha, a physician and chief of staff for St. Luke’s Wood River, said Thursday that an anticipated post-Thanksgiving surge in COVID-19 cases in Blaine County has developed, with COVID-related hospitalizations increasing in recent days and two patients dying of COVID ailments.

The deaths, first reported by the state Department of Health and Welfare on Tuesday, were of a woman in her 70s and a man in his 90s, the eighth and ninth Blaine County patients to die of the disease. The South Central Public Health District stated that both patients had underlying conditions. Neither were residents in a long-term facility, according to the Health District, and neither were hospitalized prior to their deaths, St. Luke’s said.

Amid a backdrop of more than 3,100 COVID-related deaths nationally on Wednesday—a record high—and new case counts in the country surpassing more than 200,000 for several days in the last week, Batcha said the Wood River Valley is no exception to the national norm. St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center has treated as many as five COVID-19 patients at once in the last week, he said, calling the two deaths a “grim statistic.” On Wednesday, four COVID-19 patients were being treated at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center.

Recently, COVID-19 case rates are up, Batcha noted, stating that he is concerned numbers might still rise from post-Thanksgiving cases—a trend he said could continue into the late-December holidays. Patient numbers at St. Luke’s Wood River typically go up in the winter anyway, Batcha said; in a non-pandemic year, the Ketchum-area hospital already is near or at capacity over the holidays.

“We’re talking about at least 25 percent of our inpatients being COVID-positive, which is troublesome,” said Batcha, who supervises some 420 staff of St. Luke’s Wood River. “Every person that has COVID and is in the hospital is taking up a bed that is typically taken up by somebody else.”

In addition to local capacity constraints, the larger St. Luke’s hospitals in Twin Falls and Boise—both of which have intensive-care units and beds where some patients are transferred—are “critically stressed,” he said.

“We’re in a really tight spot right now,” he said.

Meanwhile, people are making choices about how much risk of exposure to take, he said, and with asymptomatic transmission of the virus possible and numerous visitors expected to travel to the area this month, the situation is “problematic.”

“This is a very hard time for people,” Batcha said, but he emphasized that making the harder choices of following mitigation measures—wearing a mask, diligent hand hygiene, social distancing and limiting social interaction—is key to limiting spread.

To free up beds, staff in the St. Luke’s Health System are sometimes faced with discharging patients as quickly as possible, with at-home follow-up as needed, he said. Overnight elective surgeries have been put on hold.

Patients admitted to St. Luke’s for COVID-19 disease typically suffer the most from poor oxygen intake, Batcha said, often accompanied by chest pain and a cough. Patients also suffer from fever, chills, body aches and fatigue. The disease is hard to predict, he said, and is “difficult to gauge minute to minute, day to day.”

“All of these things strain our system,” he said. “We only have so many bodies.”


Blaine County still at ‘critical’ risk

Data compiled and assessed by Blaine County confirms Batcha’s concerns.

Using data from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, the county’s informational COVID-19 online dashboard—updated on Thursday afternoon—deemed the county to be at “critical” risk for the spread of the coronavirus, a status it has maintained for several weeks.

The rate of positive coronavirus tests in the county was 13.75 percent over the seven-day period. The number of new daily cases per hypothetical 100,000 residents, based on a seven-day average, was up to 68.3, from 45.9 the previous week. Both of those figures meet the criteria of the “critical” risk category, the highest of the four categories in the county’s model.

Statewide numbers are also surging. On Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 2,298 new COVID-19 cases, a record high for the second day in a row. The figure brought the total number of cases recorded in the state to 116,203, with the virus considered a contributing factor in 1,103 deaths.

State health agencies reported Thursday that COVID-related deaths in Idaho more than doubled from October to November, and that the virus is now the leading cause of death in the state.

Since the beginning of the pandemic last winter, there has been a total of 1,331 confirmed and 108 probable COVID-19 cases recorded in Blaine County, the state reported. Nationally, there have been 15,040,175 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, the federal Centers for Disease Control reported Thursday, with 285,351 deaths attributed to COVID-related illnesses.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Thursday recommended that the FDA issue emergency-use authorization to a vaccine candidate produced by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer—a major milestone in the rush to develop an inoculation against the novel coronavirus. The FDA is scheduled to consider approval of another vaccine candidate from the Moderna company on Dec. 17.

In Idaho, the vaccines—both of which require two doses per person—would, if approved, be administered first to health-care providers and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities, the state Department of Health and Welfare has stated.

Brianna Bodily, public information officer for the South Central Public Health District—which includes Blaine County—said Thursday that the state agency does not expect to have ample supplies of a vaccine to distribute to “healthy members of the general public” until the spring or summer of 2021.

In the meantime, it’s critical that residents work to slow the surging caseload as people wait for the immunization, Joy Prudek, public relations manager for St. Luke’s Wood River, told the Express. That means practicing mitigation measures in the lead-up to the vaccine’s widespread release.

“It is really important,” she said.

Batcha agreed, noting that it could take six to 12 months before the broad level of immunity capable of protecting a population—called “herd immunity”—is reached.

“We can’t relax and we can’t let down our guard because we could die,” he said. “It’s going to be a long time before we get back to some sense of normality.”

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