Exhausted hospital staff at Kootenai Health have been relieved of the federal government’s COVID-19 outbreak this week.
Just as the daily count of COVID hospitalizations hit a new record on Wednesday, a highly skilled team of 20 people from the Department of Defense began a 30-day rotation at the hospital, adding to the healthcare teams there.
The Department of Defense team is based in Colorado but has members from as far away as San Antonio and as close to Washington state, and they will be working at Kootenai Health for at least 30 days.
“This help could not have come at a better time,” Dr Robert Scoggins, medical director of the Kootenai intensive care unit, told reporters on Wednesday.
The team, mostly made up of nurses, including intensive care nurses, was approached by Kootenai Health more than a month ago. The team also includes doctors and respiratory therapists.
On August 9, Kootenai Health submitted a formal request for personnel support to state agencies in Idaho as hospitalizations for COVID began to escalate. At that time, 68 COVID patients were hospitalized. Now 115 COVID patients need treatment.
Even with the additional staff, Coeur d’Alene Hospital will still operate to crisis care standards, meaning normal operations are adjusted to accommodate patient loads through care rationing.
Some less severely affected COVID patients are treated in a conference room converted into a COVID department.
Team nursing, in which a nurse cares for more patients with the help of other staff members, is also in place. This means that patients could be seen less frequently. In addition, most operations and surgeries have been canceled at the hospital, except for emergencies.
The hospital has already dramatically increased its intensive care capacity and total bed capacity, but is largely constrained by staffing issues.
Kootenai Health has 200 beds for patients undergoing medical or surgical procedures. (It also has 130 beds in behavioral health, pediatrics and obstetrics).
Currently, there are 218 patients in medical or surgical beds, however exceeding normal capacity, and more than half of them are COVID patients. The Health Resource Center has increased hospital capacity by 22 beds, but beyond that, hospital leaders are unsure how the expansion would work with their staffing issues.
Typically, Kootenai Health operates a 25-bed intensive care unit. COVID meant the hospital had to expand its intensive care unit throughout the hospital.
Currently, there are around 55 intensive care patients, including 40 COVID-19 patients, Scoggins said.
Fitting all these extra beds is not easy. Kootenai Health has 550 open jobs, and almost half of them are for clinical caregivers.
“Our biggest limitation has been the number of employees,” Jeremy Evans, the Kootenai Health COVID-19 incident commander, said on Wednesday.
Staff who continue to work work long hours and multiple consecutive shifts. Scoggins said the intensive care team is tired.
Since the COVID unit opened at Kootenai Health, there has never been a time with zero patients.
“Emotional trauma wears off over time,” Scoggins said.
ACI Federal Labor, a contracting agency, is expected to send nearly 100 healthcare workers to hospital later this week; further details on these workers were not available.
If hospitalizations stabilize, there is a chance that the hospital could break out of crisis care standards with this contractual assistance; However, hospital leaders expect the wave of COVID patients to continue, especially with Labor Day weekend activities and schools reopening.
“We’re always at risk of having more patients,” Scoggins said. “I am worried about what will happen in the coming weeks. “
Northern Idaho is the least vaccinated region in the state, and 90% or more of patients hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated. Scoggins said many hospital patients with the virus regretted not taking it more seriously.