Officials at Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, pictured above, and Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot say they're becoming concerned about increasing numbers of patients in their emergency rooms. 

The chief medical officers of both Portneuf Medical Center and Bingham Memorial Hospital recently warned public health officials that their facilities are on the “razor’s edge” of being overwhelmed by COVID-19.

Dr. Daniel Snell of PMC and Dr. Ken Newhouse of Bingham Memorial said they’ve seen a jump in beds occupied by COVID-19 patients in recent weeks, and they fear what will happen if another jump occurs in the near future. Complicating matters, both facilities are now being inundated with patients who have been forced by the pandemic to put off treatments for unrelated health ailments, which have consequently become more serious.

The doctors told the Southeastern Idaho Public Health Board of Directors during a recent meeting that they’re now using COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment at an unsustainable rate.

“We are on a razor’s edge where with exponential growth and with continued people doing things in the community we could have a sudden uptick that could happen very, very quickly,” Newhouse said. “We could go into overload mode pretty quickly here.”

Southeastern Idaho Public Health confirmed 31 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, including 13 in Bannock County, 13 in Bingham County, one in Caribou County, two in Franklin County and two in Power County. The county now has 2,409 confirmed and probable cases, and 1,796 of those patients have already recovered.

Bear Lake County confirmed its first COVID-19 death on Monday, involving a man in his 80s, bringing the total number of deaths in Southeast Idaho to 16.

Newhouse said Bingham’s daily census has hovered near 25 patients throughout the past six weeks, which is about the maximum number of patients that the staff can accommodate.

“It’s not just COVID patients. It’s trauma patients and other things,” Newhouse said. “Because our communities have been shut down, a lot of people have been letting other health care issues go like heart disease and diabetes and things like that. We are now seeing the ravages of that in our hospital.”

Newhouse said Bingham has set up three negative pressure rooms for treating coronavirus, in which the air is sucked inward to prevent COVID-19 from becoming airborne. All three rooms have been filled continually throughout the past week and a half. Bingham could set up more negative pressure rooms in a pinch, but that would be an emergency protocol, Newhouse said.

Furthermore, he said Bingham must administer about 120 COVID-19 tests per week to people entering its skilled nursing facility, and the hospital has started burning through tests faster than the supply is being replenished. He explained if the hospital runs out of tests, it would have to assume that any incoming acutely ill patient is positive for the virus and house that patient in one of the few available negative pressure rooms.

“As we head into flu season we could see other things that could swamp the system,” Newhouse said.

Nationally, Snell said hospitals experienced a decrease in patients seeking hospital care for heart attacks and other ailments unrelated to COVID-19 immediately after the start of the pandemic. More recently, he said there’s been a nationwide spike in deaths due to health afflictions unrelated to COVID-19 as a consequence of patients avoiding health care. PMC has noticed a significant increase in patients who come to the emergency room being admitted, he said.

From the time Idaho’s stay-at-home order was rescinded, Snell said PMC has noticed a stepwise increase in intensive care hospital bed occupancy.

“There was a July bump up to 12 at the hospital. Then school started and we saw a significant jump to where we have been running over 80 percent capacity in intensive care for the past two weeks,” Snell said. “If we get pushed much further our ability to care for non-COVID things gets compromised. We’re seeing the backlog of disease that’s been ignored.”

Snell said PMC has jumped from having about eight patients at a time in the hospital in July to averaging 15 patients now. He said the hospital could make adjustments to care for up to 50 patients but that would put PMC in a “code black situation where we shut everything else down.”

Snell PMC is in the process of obtaining equipment to update its ECMO machine to handle COVID-19 patients. The machine bypasses the lungs to enable the most acutely ill coronavirus patients to breathe.

Snell said obtaining personal protective equipment supplies is still tenuous. Gloves remain in short supply, and N95 masks are only now starting to trickle in, he said. The hospital is also struggling to secure rapid coronavirus tests, which are crucial to preserving supplies of personal protective equipment by ensuring it is used only in treatment of positive patients.

Snell admits he’s growing nervous about the situation in the community.

“If we were to see another jump in coronavirus cases coupled with the flu, we’re really going to be up against it,” Snell said.

As of Monday, Bannock County had 19 patients hospitalized for COVID-19. Based on the increase in cases and growing concerns regarding capacity at local hospitals, Southeastern Idaho Public Health increased the risk level for Bannock, Bear Lake, Bingham, Butte, Caribou and Franklin counties to moderate on Sept. 17.

In response to that news, officials with the Pocatello Community Charter School implemented a new schedule, with groups of students alternating between in-class days and learning from home. The school opted to include elementary students in the alternating schedule, based on public health recommendations, said Dean Michael Mendive.

“Even if a kid doesn’t have severe symptoms we don’t want them to take it home to parents or grandparents,” Mendive said.

Mendive said PCCS has hired personnel specifically to support students while they’re learning at home.

Several cases have already been confirmed within Caribou County schools, forcing quarantines among members of football, volleyball and cheer leading teams. Public health officials said between Sept. 8 and Sept. 21, 22 of Caribou County’s 50 cases have involved people under the age of 18.

Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 chose to continue with its own hybrid educational model with an alternating schedule for students in middle school and high school after public health’s recent elevation of the local risk level. To limit contact in cafeterias and streamline meal times, District 25 announced Monday it has received a waiver allowing all students to receive free breakfast and lunch. The free meals will last until either Dec. 31 or when funding runs out.