Idaho hospitals almost buckle under the relentless COVID surge

St. Luke's Boise Medical Center's intensive care rooms are full. Each room is a blurring jungle of wires, tubes and mechanical breathing machines. They are all unvaccinated, most of them middle-aged, paralyzed, sedated, and locked in a silent battle against COVID-19.

Idaho hospitals almost buckle under the relentless COVID surge

Watch for a second, and you will see glimpses of their lives before the coronavirus.

A man in his 30s has his forearm covered in tattoos. As a nurse adjusts the position of an expectant mother, her slightly swollen stomach is revealed. The young woman is five-months pregnant and connected to a breathing machine.

Another pregnant woman, only 24 years old, lies down on her stomach, next to her growing fetus, to draw more oxygen into her already ravaged lungs.

This week Idaho was hit by a terrible COVID-19 trifecta, with record-breaking numbers of ICU patients, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits. Experts predict that the conservative state will see as many as 30,000 new infections per week by mid September.

With a critical shortage of hospital beds and staff and one of the nation's lowest vaccination rates, Idaho health providers are growing desperate and preparing to follow crisis standards of care, which call for giving scarce resources to patients most likely to survive.

St. Luke's Boise Medical Center invited The Associated Press to its ICUs this week, in the hope that people would change their behavior by sharing the terrible reality.

"There is so much to be lost, but so much of it can be prevented. This is not about the loss of life. It's almost like losing hope," Dr. Jim Souza is chief medical officer. "When the vaccines were released in December, many of us in the health care industry thought, 'Oh my God, it was like the cavalry coming down the hill. ... To see what's happening now? It's so unnecessary."

Kristen Connelly, a fellow nurse, and others often gather in the ICUs to turn each patient over. They must be careful not to disconnect the many wires and tubes that keep them alive. Turning a patient, which involves the use of breathing tubes, feeding tubes, and about a dozen hanging bags containing medications to stop a cascade in organ damage, is a risky but necessary task that occurs twice daily.

Connelly was not intimidated by the coronavirus patients who flooded Idaho's hospitals last winter. She believed she could make an impact and wasn't afraid to take on more patients. Connelly now cares for many patients, rather than focusing on one. Many of her colleagues quit because they were overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic.

"At this point I'm overwhelmed. The 26-year ICU nursing veteran stated Tuesday that she doesn't have much left.

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