Why this doctor says Idaho has 'lost the war' against COVID-19

Dr. William Dittrich looks over a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit (MICU) at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Boise on Aug. 31.

Dr. William Dittrich looks over a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit (MICU) at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Boise on Aug. 31. (Kyle Green, Associated Press)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

BOISE — An Idaho doctor has a stark message for the Gem State — the coronavirus is no longer a pandemic, it's an endemic, "which is a recognition of the reality that COVID-19 is with us to stay."

On Dec. 14, 2020, Dr. Steve Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System, said the "D-Day in the battle against coronavirus" was upon Idaho.

During an Idaho Department of Health and Welfare briefing Tuesday, the doctor had a less hopeful message.

"Sadly, today I'm here to tell you that we lost the war, that COVID-19 is here to stay," he said.

"And the reason it is here to stay is because we cannot vaccinate enough of the public to fully eradicate the disease ... we now need to move into the phase of recognizing that COVID-19 is going to be a disease to be managed for the long-term future."

Study points to grim numbers

Nemerson's statement comes in the wake of a WalletHub study that puts Idaho dead last in its ranking of safest states in the country during the pandemic.

WalletHub used five metrics — rates of COVID-19 transmission, positive testing, hospitalizations and death, and eligible people getting vaccinated — to compile a score out of 100. Coming in first is Connecticut at 92.44, then Massachusetts at 89.56. At 5.34, Idaho sits behind West Virginia in last place.

Utah's neighbor to the north also ranks 48th for positive testing rate, 47th for hospitalization rate, 50th for death rate (tied with West Virginia) and 50th for transmission rate (tied with Michigan).

Nemerson did say for the first time in three months, Idaho is now seeing a small decline in cases.

"This is not universal across Idaho, and while we are seeing this and it creates hope that we may have finally reached a peak, there is no guarantee we have reached that point yet," he said.

A registered nurse holds the hand
of a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Boise on Aug. 31.
A registered nurse holds the hand of a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Boise on Aug. 31. (Photo: Kyle Green, Associated Press)

And despite the decline in confirmed cases, the state continues to see a steady increase in ICU admissions and deaths. As a result, Nemerson said it's often only patients requiring urgent and emergent care that receive treatment.

In some cases, hospitals have turned to "nonconventional care delivery models," Nemerson said, which means "health care teams are extended beyond anything that we would normally do."

He said some health care teams have resorted to providing care in "repurposed clinical spaces."

The situation is putting considerable strain on health care employees, who are dealing with burnout and emotional trauma, Nemerson said.

"While they're protected (by the vaccine), they're experiencing trauma, they're experiencing physical and emotional stress and distress due to the fact they're witnessing patients that are dying from this terrible disease unnecessarily," he said.

Hospital employees are also being "harassed and experiencing all kinds of threats" by people who still don't believe COVID-19 is real, claim the severity of the disease that has killed over 720,000 Americans is embellished, or believe health care workers are not "committed to their well-being and recovery, which we are," Nemerson said.

A spokeswoman for Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, says he has "repeatedly and will continue to emphasize the importance of the vaccine being Idaho's best way to stay safe."

"The governor championed the largest tax cut in state history and the largest transportation investment in state history — without raising taxes, along with many other factors, the governor is very optimistic about the future of Idaho," Marissa Morrison told KREM2 news.

Medical professionals pronate a 39-year-old unvaccinated COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in
Boise on Aug. 31.
Medical professionals pronate a 39-year-old unvaccinated COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Boise on Aug. 31. (Photo: Kyle Green, Associated Press)

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Kyle Dunphey

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