Recent surge in COVID-19 cases alarms health officials | Local

St. John’s Health CEO Dr. Paul Beaupre has one word to describe the recent spike in COVID-19 cases that has included three Living Center residents and stretched his staff to its limits.

Reached Friday morning, Beaupre struck perhaps his most urgent tone since the coronavirus pandemic began. In the third distinct rise in cases since March, the past two weeks have seen active cases nearly triple to a record 89 as of Friday afternoon.

The spike has pushed Teton County’s seven-day rolling average of new daily cases per 100,000 people to 36.5. The Harvard Global Health Institute, which tracks the metric for every county in the United States, now lists Teton County as being in the “red zone.”

That designation, the institute says, means economic lockdown measures should be put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Teton County spent a good chunk of the summer in the red zone, however, and did not revert to lockdowns, opting instead for the face covering order that has been in place since July.

The latest surge has strained hospital resources. On Friday, six patients were in the primary care unit, including the three Living Center residents.

Since COVID-19 patients require isolation and increased amounts of personal protective equipment and staffing, they tax hospital resources.

Compounding that problem is the fact that the widespread nature of the virus in the community means more hospital workers are being exposed. Though it has only four staff members infected with COVID-19, St. John’s has 20 staff out because of the virus due to significant exposures and subsequent quarantines.

“If we don’t change things, we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” Beaupre said.

So far, the Living Center residents who tested positive are doing well, he said, but hospital staff will continue close monitoring for 14 days each because older COVID-19 patients can develop their most severe symptoms two weeks after exposure. The hospital is reconfiguring some rooms to allow positive but asymptomatic residents to self-isolate if more end up testing positive.

Despite the large number of staff needed for COVID-19 patients, any Living Center resident who shows symptoms and tests positive will be transferred to the acute care part of the hospital. That will allow doctors to keep an eye on them in the hopes they don’t develop severe cases.

“Those sorts of facilities seem to be a source of real potential morbidity and mortality when outbreaks enter them,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said. “So we’re watching that situation very closely.”

St. John’s isn’t the only regional hospital facing challenges. The Idaho Falls Post Register reported Thursday that hospitals in Idaho Falls have available beds, but mounting COVID-19 hospitalizations have similarly stretched their staffs thin.

That could pose a challenge for St. John’s, which has sent acute COVID-19 patients to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center throughout the pandemic.

Jackson’s new spike in cases is unlike the one in June and July, when young people made up the bulk of the cases. Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said no pattern like that exists this time, which makes it more difficult to pinpoint a solution.

“It feels like it’s everywhere,” Pond said. “It’s hard to put our time and attention into one industry.”

Like the hospital staff, Pond’s team of contact tracers are being stretched by the increase in cases. A recent cluster associated with local young adults, including Jackson Hole High School students, produced roughly 15 cases and 50 close contacts. All of those investigations take time.

That cluster reveals another trend that Pond thinks is leading to case spread among older demographics: Unlike in other communities, the summer cases in younger people didn’t lead to cases in older people.

Many of the younger COVID-19 patients over the summer were seasonal workers, so they had no older family to take the virus home to. But when infectious younger people visit family members who live here, they can start that movement of transmission into older population.

With no clear origin for the most recent surge, Beaupre implored everyone to shake off their “pandemic fatigue” and to adhere to the mask wearing and social distancing, which have correlated with previous declines in case numbers.

Riddell said it’s only natural for people to lose steam on the precautions after so many months, but he hoped the recent conditions might change that.

“As frustrating it is sometimes, it takes more cases, more people getting sick,” he said Friday. “Obviously we’ve got some national figures sick with this right now. Those sort of events are what it takes for people to start paying attention again and taking it more seriously.”

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