Malheur County covid data as of Oct. 26. (The Enterprise graphic)

ONTARIO – The region’s medical system went blinking red Tuesday as coronavirus cases fill hospitals and doctors plead with people to reduce “needless suffering, needless deaths” by wearing face masks.

In a press briefing, top officials with the two hospital systems that serve Malheur County residents – Saint Alphonsus Medical Center and St. Luke’s Health System – joined other leading medical officials to warn that Covid cases are once again surging.

“We’re in a closing window of opportunity here to intervene,” said Dr. Jim Souza, St. Luke’s chief medical officer.

“We are not in crisis conditions – but we are very close,” added Dr. Steven Emerson, Saint Alphonsus chief clinical officer.

They were among signers to a joint letter issued Monday calling on Idaho’s health care districts to mandate the wearing of masks. That was the same day that Gov. Brad Little moved to tighten some Covid-related rules statewide, but stopped short of mandating masks.

What happens in Idaho has a significant impact on Malheur County’s ability to control the virus, county and state health officials have said. They have been unsuccessful in recent weeks to reach any cross-border agreements to mitigate the virus spread.

Payette County is among the “red” places in Idaho where the virus is spreading out of control. That’s key to Malheur County and particularly employers in Ontario, who rely on workers commuting from Idaho. Nearly three-fourths of the work force at Snake River Correctional Institution live in Idaho, state officials say.

Since the start of the pandemic, Malheur County has recorded 1,920 people infected with the coronavirus, resulting in 114 hospitalizations and 37 deaths. Oregon and Idaho, along with other states across the U.S., have recently been posting the highest daily count ever of new cases. Oregon on Tuesday reported a total of 42,808 cases. Idaho had 60,400.

The doctors addressing reporters Tuesday acknowledged the stark tone of their message. But they said people need to be aware that the track of the virus in the coming weeks is in their hands.

DOCUMENT: Physicians' warning to health districts

“We’re seeing way too much needless suffering and death,” Souza said. “Much of this is preventable.”

Souza said St. Luke’s hospitals are dealing with a sudden surge in people who need to be hospitalized for Covid.

Nemerson said there a similar surge at Saint Alphonsus hospitals, which includes medical centers in and Baker City. He said that about a month ago, Saint Alphonsus had five Covid patients hospitalized. Now the count is more than 30 “and growing,” he said.

Across the hospitals, Nemerson said that in the next two to four weeks “we’re looking at a doubling” in hospitalized Covid patients. That would put the hospitals at about 100% capacity.

Souza said St. Luke’s is forecasting a similar increase, again declaring there would be “needless suffering, needless death.”

The two doctors said that if the surge comes as forecast, hospitals will have to again start limiting care for other kinds of conditions. And they said transferring patients to other hospitals isn’t feasible. They said Utah hospitals are no longer taking out-of-state patients because of their own local needs and hospitals in eastern Washington are now sending patients to the west side of the state for care.

Nemerson said Saint Alphonsus is “very, very close” to deciding what medical care to delay to make room for more Covid patients.

 The doctors described the split-screen way of life for their employees confronting Covid.

Souza said St. Luke’s had 108 employees out sick with Covid. He said the majority of the infections were acquired not in the hospital settings but in the community from what he said were businesses with safe Covid practices, multi-family events and other small gatherings.

Dr. Dave Peterman, CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, said the group’s clinics have 20 to 30 employees a day off work, because they have been infected with Covid or need to be in quarantine.

He said no clinic employee has been diagnosed as getting Covid from a patient. He said the clinics all enforce the use of masks, social distancing and hand washing.

Primary Health, he said, has closed two urgent care clinics for lack of staffing.

The doctors said the public can head off a worsening of conditions.

“Action is required now,” Souza said.

The doctors said that wearing a mask and observing social distancing are the keys.

“If you wear a mask and I wear a mask, we can stop the spread of this virus,” Peterman said. “That has to be the most important thing that comes out of this today.”

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected]

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