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Though the COVID-19 pandemic has settled in Teton County at a more manageable level than during the fall and winter spikes, trouble is brewing to the west, and it could impact Teton County patients.

At the April 1 Eastern Idaho Public Health board meeting, a representative from Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center spoke about current trends at his hospital. Over the winter, the Bonneville County hospital had seemingly gotten its numbers of COVID-19 patients under control.

“Since our time in February where we had dipped into the single digits, we have more than tripled our COVID in-patient volumes,” Chief Operating Officer David Hoffenberg told the board. “We’ve been treating between 25 and 30 COVID-positive patients at EIRMC every week for over the last month and a half.”

The Idaho Falls hospital has 29 intensive care unit beds, and as of the April 1 meeting, 13 had COVID-19 patients in them. Because COVID-19 patients require more staffing and protective equipment, they pose problems even if the ICU isn’t full.

Those patients are “filling beds that are needed for other emergent needs such as trauma, strokes, burns, and the like,” he said. “So that has added a considerable additional load to our team that we have not typically seen.”

A full hospital in a city nearly two hours from Jackson might not seem like a huge deal, but it could pose problems for Teton County patients. EIRMC has been taking COVID-positive patients from around the region, including Teton Counties, Idaho and Wyoming, in recent weeks.

The hospital is the regional trauma center, so someone with life-threatening cardiac arrest or who has been in a car crash might be transferred there from St. John’s Health. EIRMC spokeswoman Colleen Niemann has previously told the News&Guide that if a bed is open, they will accept a transfer.

With the hospital’s current capacity challenges, however, it’s clear both Hoffenberg and the public health board are considering what level of transfer they can handle.

“Why are you then receiving patients from outside of our health district?” Chairman Bryon Reed asked.

“Our perspective is we need to keep our doors open for the patients we can treat,” Hoffenberg replied. “To just shut down completely for a period, it’s just not something as a trauma center you really can do.”

EIRMC is working with regional facilities for continuing care or to transfer patients if it doesn’t have a bed for them. Though patients will eventually find a bed, it could require a longer flight to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, which also has a transfer agreement with St. John’s Health. Time is of the essence in an emergency situation, so a longer flight could represent higher risk.

Though Hoffenberg wasn’t able to provide specific numbers to the board, he said the recent hospitalizations ran counter to what most people might expect. COVID-19’s outsize impact on people over 65 years old is well-documented, but with older populations showing higher levels of vaccination, the hospitalizations have been across the board.

“Over the last couple months, it’s been consistent that it’s not a single age group that we’re treating,” Hoffenberg said. “We are seeing young patients; we are seeing folks in their 20s, in their 30s, their 40s.”

Though there is no single reason for the continuing high level of hospitalizations, COVID-19 cases remain high in Idaho Falls and Rexburg, the two largest cities in the Eastern Idaho Public Health District. They were recently at the top of the list of hardest-hit metro areas, though Idaho Falls dropped to 38th with 37.8 new daily cases per 100,000 people, while Rexburg was 59th at 31.3 per 100,000, as of Tuesday.

Students in eastern Idaho are also returning from spring break, a week or two ahead of Teton County schools. That could be contributing to the high level of cases, Hoffenberg said, but it could also presage another spike in severe cases.

James Corbett, the district’s community health division director, told the board the current situation could also be due to variants, at least two of which have been identified in eastern Idaho. But he insisted that the bulk of the spread — and likely the hospitalizations — were due to decisions of individuals, especially people not heeding the advice to stay home when they don’t feel well.

He mentioned sporting events as one example of large gatherings where the district is seeing transmission of cases, including district high school basketball tournaments.

“Individuals don’t want to miss out on those activities,” he said. “And they’ll continue to go even when feeling ill.”

Corbett did say that it wasn’t clear why eastern Idaho is seeing such drastic numbers, which outstrip the rest of the state, when other communities are holding similar events. That uncertainty coupled with the cases, he said, is reason to be cautious.

“It’s not the time to necessarily let down our guard,” he said. “It’s still active in our community.”

When EIRMC’s resources are strapped, Jackson patients’ options could be limited in an emergency, COVID-19-related or not.

“We are seeing young patients; we are seeing folks in their 20s, in their 30s, their 40s.” — David Hoffenberg Chief operating officer at
Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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