The rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks is posing a serious shortage of health care workers in Idaho that could push the state back into crisis standards of care operations.

A panel of Idaho health experts said during an online media briefing Tuesday that the highly contagious omicron variant has doubled the percentage of COVID-19 cases reported since the first of January.

As new virus cases rise, Idaho’s supply of health care workers is thinning

“We are seeing a large number of people coming down with COVID,” said Dave Jeppesen, director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “That has a double-negative impact on hospitals. The health care system is seeing COVID patients increase and a decrease in the number of health care workers. Hospitals are under a tremendous amount of stress and we expect that to get worse before it gets better.”

Many health care workers are leaving the profession because of stress or burnout, said Dr. Christine Hahn, state epidemiologist. But the major driver for the decline in the workforce is because health care workers themselves are getting sick.

Although indications worldwide are that omicron causes less severe illness than previous strains, “we are very concerned about the trends in our cases,” Hahn said. A doubling of omicron cases, however less severe than the delta variant, still could overwhelm the health care system, she said.

Idaho continues to lag behind other states in the number of people being vaccinated and getting boosters, which could lead to another declaration of crisis standards of care that the state implemented in the fall, Jeppesen said. That declaration allows hospitals that are stretched to their limits to prioritize patient care. St. Joseph Regional Medical Center was the only hospital in north central Idaho that adopted the crisis standards of care for a few weeks in September.

Adding to the strain for hospitals, Hahn said, is an increase in influenza this year, which was not much of a problem last year. Flu season usually peaks in February and March, she said.

Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist, said as of Saturday 250 cases of omicron had been confirmed in Idaho. None of those patients was hospitalized, she said, and none died.

Public Health – Idaho North Central District reported another day of increased COVID-19 infections, including six in Lewis County, nine in Clearwater County, 11 in Idaho County, 17 in Latah County and 83 in Nez Perce County, for a total of 126 cases. No new deaths were reported.

Whitman County added 48 new cases, Garfield County had five new infections and Asotin County reported 33 new cases Tuesday for a 14-day count of 202.

Hedberg may be contacted at khedberg@lmtribune.com or (208) 983-2326.