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'I didn't think it would be me': Kootenai Health ICU nurse talks about reality for COVID-19 patients

A Kootenai Health ICU nurse talked about her experience treating seriously ill COVID-19 patients amid the fifth wave of the virus.

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Kootenai Health gave an update on the situation inside their hospital as the fifth wave of COVID-19 hits North Idaho.    

At a press conference Wednesday, one ICU nurse gave her firsthand account of the situation from inside the hospital. Kootenai Health is one of many hospitals struggling to keep up with the alarmingly high amount of COVID-19 patients coming through the doors. 

Nurse Emily Farness said that the patients coming into the hospital and ICU are getting increasingly younger. She said that it has been odd seeing what would be otherwise healthy people become so sick due to the delta variant. 

"if they're able to talk, if they're not on a ventilator, a lot of them say they 'didn't think it would be me sitting in this bed," said Farness. 

She said the patients believed that COVID-19 was political, a hoax or was serious only for people with preexisting conditions. Now, those same patients are telling their families to take the virus seriously and get vaccinated. 

Farness said that over the past year the nursing staff has gotten a lot of experience caring for COVID-19 patients, along with learning to care for patients' physical symptoms and emotional needs.

She told the story of one patients who was critically ill from the virus. The patient didn't want to be ventilated and, as her condition worsened, she asked the staff to help her write 25 goodbye letters to her friends and family. Farness said the toll on nursing staff is going far beyond physical exhaustion from working long hours. 

 "We can't do this alone," Farness said, "we need the whole community to do what they can to protect themselves but also their neighbors."

Kootenai Health is reporting as of Wednesday there are 105 COVID-19 patients in their care. Thirty-three of those are in critical care and 14 are on ventilators, a slight decrease from last week. 

Overall, 276 patients are in the hospital which has 330 total beds. To put it is perspective, 38% of the hospital's patients are COVID-19-positive. 

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced last week that Panhandle Health District and the Idaho North Central District entered into crisis standards of care because of “a massive increase in patients with COVID-19 who require hospitalization.” This means resources are stretched so thin patients can no longer expect the level of care they would receive under normal circumstances.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has provided the hospital with 20 military medical personnel for at least the next five weeks to support their staff. During last week's press conference,  Kootenai Health Chief of Staff Dr. Robert Scoggins said Kootenai Health is caring for 115 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday. Forty of those patients are in critical care and 20 require ventilators. He said on average Kootenai regularly only has 26 ICU beds.

Unlike other hospitals in the country, Kootenai Health was about to close its COVID-19 units due to a decline in cases earlier this year. The hospital has never been been able to close down its COVID-19 unit because they were never able to discharge all of the patients. 

Kootenai Health said it has stretched existing staff, hired additional contract nurses, expanded bed capacity, canceled elective surgeries and adjusted contingency levels of care to accommodate the COVID-19 patient surges and volume demands.