As hospitals struggle, Gov. Little mobilizes Idaho National Guard

by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports

Governor Brad Little announced Friday that he is rolling the state back to a modified version of Stage 2 and mobilizing 100 members of the Idaho National Guard to support the state’s struggling healthcare capacity.

“We are in the middle of an unprecedented and dangerous time in our state’s history,” Little said. “With every day that passes, we are breaking records for the numbers of COVID deaths, the number of overall hospitalizations and the number of new cases in communities all across our state.”

The new Stage 2 order prohibits social gatherings of more than 10 people, though businesses, schools, churches and political events are exempted from that restriction.

Little also stopped short of mandating masks, saying that most coronavirus spread is happening in smaller social settings where law enforcement officers would not be able to enforce such a mandate anyway.

Major General Michael Garshak described the National Guard mission as decontaminating healthcare facilities and performing COVID-19 testing and screenings. The Guard might also be called upon to assist in contact tracing as public health districts have been overwhelmed with cases in recent weeks.

“What we’re talking about is labor and manpower to help support and relieve the healthcare communities,” Garshak said.

The press conference also featured new mother Amelia Cortez, who shared her experience being in the ICU for three weeks after checking in to St Luke’s in Boise during her pregnancy because she could not breathe.

“A few days into my hospital stay, I fought for my [newborn] daughter to be sent home to my mom, but little did I know my daughter had already been sent home and I had lost three days. Everything was a blur.”

Rachel Thain, a respiratory therapist at St. Luke’s who treated Cortez, spoke to the challenges that healthcare workers are facing.

“We’re finding that our very sick patients are on life support machines for two to three weeks,” said Thain. “Patients being in the ICU for this long, it’s holding up ICU beds. They need that ICU bed, they have to be on that life support machine, but that means we don’t have room for heart surgeries.”

“Not only are our ICUs full, our floors are full. We experience calls daily from outlying facilities, Washington, Oregon, all over Idaho saying, ‘Please take our patients. We are at capacity, we don’t have staff to take care of our patients.’ Well, that’s where we are now too.”

Those diversions aren’t just affecting COVID patients. On Thursday, Abner King, CEO of Syringa Hospital in Grangeville, told Idaho Reports that his hospital had to send a cardiac patient to Coeur d’Alene because the nearest ICU didn’t have the capacity to take them on. St. Luke’s Magic Valley has had to send pediatric patients to the Treasure Valley, and earlier this week, St. Luke’s Health System announced it will delay elective procedures until Christmas because of the influx of COVID patients.

“I’m begging you as a healthcare provider, help us take care of you,” said Thain. “I’ve been taking care of COVID patients since March, I have not contracted COVID. I am not going to contract COVID in the hospital. We are very safe there with masks, hand-washing and socially distancing.”

“I’m going to contract COVID in the community, unfortunately,” Thain added. “It doesn’t matter which store I go into, it doesn’t matter what establishment it is, there are still people out there not wearing their masks or wearing their masks improperly.”

For more, watch Friday’s Idaho Reports. The show airs Fridays at 8 pm on Idaho Public Television, and is available online after it airs at idahoptv.org/idahoreports.

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Melissa Davlin contributed reporting to this article. You can find the modified Stage 2 health order here and the Executive Order calling on the Idaho National Guard here.

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