PMC (copy)

Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello.

East Idaho health care officials say their hospital beds are beginning to fill up as new COVID-19 cases continue to climb, and medical staffing shortages are complicating matters.

As of Aug. 2, 22 residents within Southeastern Idaho Public Health’s service area were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 14 Bannock County residents.

It’s a significant change in the wrong direction from early May, when Pocatello-based Portneuf Medical Center reported its first day since the start of the pandemic in which there were no COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s care.

For the week ending Aug. 2, the district reported 143 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases, including 92 in Bannock County.

That’s up from the week ending July 26, when the health district reported 125 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases. There were 82 new cases reported during the week ending July 19.

By comparison, there were 16 new confirmed and probable cases when the pandemic reached a low point locally during the week ending June 21. The worst week in the district for new cases was the week ending Nov. 29, at the height of the pandemic, when there were 1,305 new confirmed and probable cases reported.

Just 37.5 percent of Idahoans were fully vaccinated as of Sunday; the vast majority of the new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been among residents who have not gotten the vaccine. Health care experts are especially concerned about the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. As of Monday, the state had 70 confirmed cases of the Delta variant.

“With the Delta variant we’re encouraging people to wear their masks in indoor settings,” Southeastern Idaho Public Health spokesperson Tracy McCulloch said, explaining the district’s mask recommendation follows recently updated guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The COVID-19 trend has also spurred Southeastern Idaho Public Health to resume meetings of its unified command starting at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. The unified command meetings involve several community partners who participate in a common call. The meetings were discontinued last spring, when COVID-19 was being better controlled.

“It’s really a way for us all to be on the same page and really to help one another,” McCulloch said.

PMC CEO Jordan Herget said in an email the hospital’s current in-patient census includes 19 COVID-19 patients, about quadruple the number of coronavirus patients at the hospital during the first week of July.

The peak COVID-19 census during the height of the pandemic was 35 to 40 patients, he said. The rise in new coronavirus hospitalizations is concerning to Herget at at time of year when trauma cases are also typically high.

“We are in the height of the trauma season which causes our overall census to be high,” Herget said. “Staffing shortages are affecting hospitals throughout the region, state and nationwide.”

To address staffing needs, Herget said PMC is coordinating with area hospitals and is considering the possible use of the Southeast Idaho Medical Reserve Corps. The MRC mobilizes health care and non-health care people interested in volunteering in a health-related capacity to assist during emergencies.

“More than 90 percent of our the COVID patients we are seeing are unvaccinated, underscoring the importance of getting a vaccination,” Herget said.

He believes the nearly 80 percent vaccination rate among PMC staff has helped the hospital meet the rising demand for inpatient care. PMC has opened a new special care unit, which should better serve patients with airborne contagious diseases such as COVID-19. Herget said PMC has not yet had to use the beds in the new unit for COVID-19 patients.

Mark Baker, a spokesperson with Bingham Memorial Hospital, noted Gov. Brad Little made an emergency declaration last year changing licensing requirements to allow people who recently left health care to return to the workforce in an expedited manner. He said Bingham, like many other hospitals, is short on experienced nurses, especially those with experience in intensive care units.

Baker said Bingham is seeking to take advantage of the governor’s declaration and bring in additional help.

“That is definitely a place where we have a shortage in our region, and I know it’s also statewide,” Baker said. “I think the trend that’s most alarming now is the rate of (COVID-19) increase. We’ve been seeing a doubling week over week and that’s a rate that at some point becomes unsustainable.”

Baker emphasized that the data clearly shows people who have been vaccinated are much less likely to get sick, and breakthrough cases are far less likely to lead to hospitalizations. Baker said Bingham is participating in a national study that is showing vaccination also leads to much better outcomes for pregnant women and their unborn children.

“That’s going to be important for future vaccination plans,” Baker said.