October COVID spike

Britt Krull, a registered nurse at St. John’s Health, collects a sample from a patient for a COVID-19 test at medical tent outside the hospital on May 8. The hospital currently has nine hospitalized COVID-19 patients, which stresses its staffing resources, and regional hospitals are feeling the same strain.

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Just as quickly as Teton County’s COVID-19 case numbers shot up, they’ve begun to come down, though St. John’s Health still has a high number of hospitalized patients.

As recently as Sunday the JHCovid.com dashboard showed 89 active cases, a record for the county at any time during the pandemic. On Tuesday afternoon the number was 52 active cases, a decrease of 37 in just two days.

Even though that sounds positive, Tuesday’s 52 active cases is still higher than most other times during the pandemic with the exception of the midsummer spike that spanned early to mid-July. It includes 11 cases associated with an outbreak at the St. John’s Health Living Center that represents one of the most dangerous situations the community has faced from the coronavirus.

“Those sorts of facilities seem to be a source of real potential morbidity and mortality when outbreaks enter them,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said last week. “So we’re watching that situation very closely.”

Eight residents and three staff members have so far tested positive for COVID-19. Hospital CEO Dr. Paul Beaupre said all eight residents had been transferred out of the Living Center into the acute care side of the hospital.

“We’re never really keen on the idea of taking people that are positive for COVID and allowing them to stay in the Living Center,” he said Monday.

With nine hospitalized COVID-19 patients, St. John’s faces staffing stresses that exceed other points in the pandemic. With more than 20 staff out because of positive COVID-19 tests or quarantine orders due to close contact with a positive person, nurses and doctors are working extra shifts.

St. John’s is not alone. In Idaho Falls, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center has 29 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, an increase of 10 from last week.

That influx doesn’t necessarily cause a shortage of hospital beds, but it puts extreme stress on EIRMC’s staff because COVID-19 patients require extra staff and personal protective equipment.

“You either have a bed open or you don’t,” EIRMC Director of Marketing Colleen Niemann said. “But talking about staffing, it’s harder, more complex.”

The Idaho Falls hospital has hired 150 people in the past three months, Niemann said, but it is still scrambling to care for all the patients, whether those with the coronavirus or other conditions.

Capacity issues at the regional facility could ultimately affect Jackson patients who need a higher level of care. St. John’s often transfers people who need specialized care to EIRMC, so those staffing concerns could affect patients right when they need care the most.

As it stands, if there is a bed, Niemann said, a Jackson resident is just as entitled to it as someone who lives in Idaho Falls. With rising case rates across the region, however, should the hospital reach capacity, Jackson transfers would need to travel farther to a different regional facility.

“It should be worrisome to anyone in our entire region, whether they live in southeast Idaho or western Wyoming,” Niemann said. “If case loads don’t begin to drop and, therefore, hospitalizations begin to drop, hospitals along our region are going to be in this critical mass situation.”

St. John’s isn’t quite at a critical mass yet. Beaupre pointed out that the COVID-19 ward it created can hold up to 20 patients, and the hospital can shift other areas around to hold more.

But it does face the same staffing issues EIRMC does, and hospital administrators would like to get a handle on the Living Center outbreak soon. If more patients were to be hospitalized, it could make it more difficult for non-COVID-19 patients struggling with conditions like heart disease or orthopedic injuries to be treated in a timely manner.

“When we’ve got our health care services stretched to the limit, that’s not a good position to be in,” Riddell said.

To reduce the stress on Teton County’s health care system, a further drop in cases across the community is certainly needed.

The Teton County Health Department reported Tuesday that it now rates the community as back in the “red zone,” its highest risk category. It ranks the number of new cases, its contact tracing capabilities and the level of community spread (cases with an unknown origin) as “concerning,” an upgrade from the past couple of months.

“We are asking all community members to decrease their viral footprint by reducing the amount they are moving around the community,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said Tuesday in a press release.

Beaupre has been banging the drum even more loudly on the things officials have been asking people to do all along. He emphasized that people should be attuned to how much distance they are giving someone to actually ensure it is 6 feet.

He also stressed that people should be even more vigilant about masks, even in situations when it can seem cumbersome, like dining with friends.

“If you’re not eating in the security of your own home with people that are in that social group that you know exactly what they’re doing 24/7 ... you should be taking your mask off to put food in your mouth, putting your mask back on and chewing your food,” he said.

The recent decline in cases may indicate people have realigned after a bout of “pandemic fatigue.” It’s only natural, Riddell said, to tire of the constant precautions, so it may take a rapid spike in cases to catch people’s attention again, though he hopes the consequences of inattention don’t turn out to be dire.

“Those sort of events are what it takes for people to start paying attention again and taking it more seriously,” he said. “Obviously you don’t want people to die for that to happen.”

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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