Unprecedented rationing of medical care looms in Treasure Valley as Covid spreads

Malheur County officials are urging more people get tested to Covid to detect unknown cases. (The Enterprise/file)

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Treasure Valley medical leaders warn they may have to ration health care as coronavirus cases are expected to continue to surge, filling hospital beds and overwhelming medical clinics.

The panel of doctors, at a joint virtual news conference on Tuesday, issued a plea for the public’s help tinged with resignation that a health disaster looms.

Their urgent message came as the number of people infected with Covid in Oregon and Idaho continues to climb. Hospitalizations in some places have doubled in just one month. Clinics have had to close because too many employees became infected themselves in the community.

“These numbers of terrifying,” said Dr. Richard Augustus, chief medical officer of West Valley Medical Center. “It’s real. It’s not made up.”

Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer at the Saint Alphonsus Health System, said rates of infection have hit as high as 900 cases per 100,000 people in Canyon County and is approaching that in others. He said anything over a rate of 100 is considered a severe rate.

“We’re well beyond severe,” Nemerson said.

The doctors also spoke forcefully about the doubt they’re facing in some parts of the community.

Earlier Tuesday, a local public health district board took testimony from witnesses who doubted the seriousness of the pandemic and suggested the medical community was overreacting.

Dr. Jim Souza, chief medical officer of St. Luke’s Health System, said he found it “unbelievable” that a public health agency would give time to “two known conspiracy theorists.”

“I’d like to know when we’re going stop giving oxygen to people who are trying to say this either is a hoax or no big deal,” he said. “It’s time for the quiet majority to take back this conversation.”

Dr. Dave Peterman, CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, said the claim made that wearing masks can cause Covid was “absolutely ludicrous.”

They urged the public to control the virus by wearing masks, keeping social distancing in mind and washing hands – a trifecta of advice that has been in place for months.

VIDEO: Watch the doctors presentation

Wearing a mask is the “least worst option compared to other things,” said Dr. William Vetter of Valor Health of Emmett.

Vetter said urgency care visits at Valor have doubled, straining the system to the point that “we are considering stopping surgeries.”

He said people who aren’t following protocols is driving the surge and pushing more sick people into the medical system.

“That demand is breaking us,” Vetter said.

Dr. Terry O’Connor, emergency physician at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center near Ketchum, said the infection rate there has been steadily climbing in the past month, approaching a wave of the coronavirus that “engulfed” the area last spring.

He said people are “making it to some degree worse with their behaviors.”

The doctors described the stress on medical staff as the workload grows.

“They are exhausted,” said Nemerson. “They are working longer shifts than they normally would. They are cross-covering for each other.”

Dr. Jordan Blanchard, medical clinic director at the 16-bed Weiser Memorial Hospital, said the hospital is experiencing a “sharp increase” in cases. The hospital was expected to exhaust its supply of rapid Covid tests that day, he said.

He said as larger hospitals fill, Weiser Memorial would face a new challenge: where to transfer patients who need critical care. He also said care facilities that normally take patients for rehabilitation are turning away new patients as they deal with their own infection cases.

The doctors said circumstances are moving the medical system closer to a crisis that will result in rationing health care.

Souza said plans devised earlier this year lay out steps for medical providers to decide who gets treated and who doesn’t if the system is overflowing with patients. Those choices would decide who gets advanced medical care.

“The individual with the greatest chance of survival and years of survival is allocated the resource,” Souza said.

“It’s a very real possibility within the next two months if not sooner,” Nemerson said.

Souza said such a shift is “totally preventable” if the public will help.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Souza said. “Never in my career did I think we would even contemplate rationing care in the United States of America.”


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