Despite staff shortages and patient loads two to three times the normal rate, Pullman-area physicians said they are doing everything they can to keep up with the medical demand compounded by COVID-19.

“Health care workers are getting tired and worn out,” said Dr. Stephanie Fosback, an internal medicine physician at Pullman Regional Hospital during an online briefing Tuesday. “It feels like a week (doesn’t go) by when we don’t have a goodbye barbecue for staff. ... That isn’t to say we’re not going to show up for you. We’re going to keep showing up for people, but we are tired.”

Fosback and a panel of four other doctors discussed their challenges and worries about the ongoing pandemic, including the number of people who refuse to get vaccinated, during the briefing.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little, during an online question-and-answer session later in the day, said he believes his opposition to a vaccine mandate might be contributing to the low numbers of people who are getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Peter Mikkelsen, head of emergency medicine at the Pullman hospital said the staff there is seeing more patients than they ever have before.

“We’re open for business,” Mikkelsen said. “We’re taking care of everybody, but we’re really tested as far as the volume of patients that we can see.”

Washington state has not yet instituted the critical standards of care guidelines affecting many hospitals in Idaho. Even so, medical staff are being forced in many cases to prioritize patients depending upon their level of illness and the number of workers who are available.

Mikkelsen said most of the COVID-19 patients who are being hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Vaccines, Fosback said, help people avoid COVID-19 and, if they develop symptoms, to have milder cases and stay out of the hospital.

“One thing that’s hard to talk about,” she said, “(is) your vaccine impacts the whole community. Your vaccine keeps the person behind you in line (at a grocery store or other place) who may have gotten chemo for breast cancer safe. ... Because it does matter; it matters to us all.”

Dr. Sunday D. Henry talked about a friend who has been undergoing cancer treatment and whose immune system is compromised. There are people around this woman, Henry said, who are refusing to be vaccinated, and that worries her.

When the vaccine came out in December, she said, she believed it might help spell the end of the pandemic.

But now, “it hurts my soul that now we’re questioning it because individuals are having illness during the vaccine. But we’re keeping folks out of the hospital. It’s not perfect, but it is really, really good.

“I think vaccines might be one of the very best medical inventions out there,” Henry continued. “None of us would recommend something that we don’t trust. We didn’t go to medical school to be controlled by the government or anyone else. We went to medical school to take care of patients as best we could.”

Dr. Katie Hryniewicz, a Pullman pediatrician, said nationwide there have been escalating numbers of cases among children who are too young to receive the vaccine.

More children are being hospitalized with COVID-19, Hryniewicz said, and in the past 18 months she has treated rising cases of eating disorders, depression and anxiety among children.

“This pandemic is prolonged; it feels like it keeps going,” Hryniewicz said. “And that, in and of itself, has a huge, long-lasting impact on our kids.”

That includes the disruption in regular school routines that have been going on since the pandemic started.

Hryniewicz said her clinic’s patient volume has doubled in the past 18 months, which affects the ability to give care to well patients, kids with chronic illnesses as well as COVID-19 patients.

“I feel like the best way we can help our kids ... is to do everything we can to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

Mikkelsen noted that because of a shortage of hospital beds and other stresses on the medical community, some people are putting off seeking help for medical conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.

He acknowledged the demand of sick patients has outstripped the care that can be provided, and “we really haven’t seen this in our careers. I don’t think anybody currently in health care has seen anything like this.”

In Idaho, Little joined Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen for the question-and-answer session on social media, organized by the AARP.

Like the Pullman doctors, Little noted the stress the pandemic is putting on health care workers and urged people to “reach out to health care providers and thank them. There’s hardly any in the state that aren’t under a lot of stress right now.”

When asked by a viewer whether he thinks his opposition to a vaccine mandate might be contributing to the high numbers of infections in Idaho, Little replied: “Yes. That’s my short answer. ... We continue to do all we can to reach out to encourage people.”

Despite his concerns, the governor said he believes mandates have not been successful in places where they have been tried and that the best way to improve vaccine numbers is to encourage people to “do the right thing.”

Proof-of-vaccination cards, Little said, can be easily counterfeited.

“People have to want to do the right things,” he said. “Mandates have not been the panacea. What works best is if people choose to do the right thing.”

He said those who have vaccine hesitancy should speak to people they trust to guide them in making decisions.

“I’m urging people to reach out to people they have the utmost faith in (such as medical experts) ... to continue to get our vaccination rate up,” he said. “The vaccine does work, even with the new variants. We will continue to beat that drum.”

When Little was asked about how to address the shortage of staff in long-term health care and memory care facilities, he noted that the state is directing $18 million to help pay workers.

“We know it’s expensive,” he said. “We know it’s a challenge. And with the high incident rate (at care homes) we’ve made additional funding available for them. Those are some of the toughest facilities to staff that we have in the state.”

Three more COVID-19 deaths were reported Tuesday by Public Health – Idaho North Central District and Asotin County. Two men, both in their 60s, one from Lewis County the other in Idaho County, died from the virus. An Asotin County woman in the 60-80 age bracket also died.

Regionally there were 58 new infections reported Tuesday — 15 in Lewis County, 24 in Clearwater County, 26 in Idaho County, 24 in Latah County and 84 in Nez Perce County.

Whitman County had 42 new cases; Asotin County 18 new cases, for a 14-day count of 215. There are five hospitalizations and 59 breakthrough cases so far in September in Asotin County. Garfield County added one infection Tuesday.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.