Suzanne Hansen was at the grocery store in Twin Falls, Idaho, with her daughter — both of them in masks — when a man approached her in the baking aisle.

“This guy gets within a foot of my face, telling me how stupid I am because I’m wearing a mask and I’m just blindly following,” she said. “He said, ‘Why do you think you need to wear a mask?’”

Hansen explained to him that she is an emergency room nurse, coming into contact with COVID-19 patients. She wasn’t wearing the mask for herself, she said; she was wearing it to protect people around her, in case she was unknowingly infected.

“And while I’m saying this, he takes like 10 steps back,” she said. “But he still keeps yelling at me.”

Hansen recounted that story last week, as her hospital, St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, was inundated with COVID-19 patients. The hospital serves a metro area of more than 100,000 people, taking patients from several surrounding counties. For the past three weeks, a growing number of those patients have come in with COVID-19.

The hospital’s resources are strained. People who work there are tired. Some are out sick, or in quarantine, as the virus spreads in the community. Those who are healthy are offered emergency pay to work extra shifts.

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Interviews in the past week with hospital management and employees shared a theme: They wonder how much longer they can keep up with the demands of this coronavirus surge. They worry about the coming weeks and months, as case numbers climb and Idaho enters flu season. About 20% of the COVID-19 tests done by St. Luke’s for residents of Twin Falls, Jerome and Gooding counties are coming back positive.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

“It takes a lot of managing, it takes a lot of effort and calling nurses and begging them to work extra shifts,” said Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for Magic Valley, Jerome and Wood River. “It gets back around to, how long can you sustain this? How long can you provide the high-quality health care we provide?”

St. Luke’s can still take patients who come to the emergency room and has put in place measures to help keep its clinics and hospitals safe, such as requiring masks, screening patients, limiting visitors and non-medical staff, and isolating patients with COVID-19. Physicians and hospitals have urged the public to continue seeing health care providers or going to the hospital in medical emergencies. Patients who delay medical care have shown up at the hospital in much worse condition, they said.

The hospital made a decision this month to cancel elective procedures to keep enough beds open. At times, as other hospitals in the region filled up, St. Luke’s Magic Valley had to refuse to take their patients; it didn’t have enough room for them either.

Kern said he’s turning to other St. Luke’s hospitals that brought in traveling nurses to help with COVID-19 surges in July, asking whether it’s possible to bring some of those nurses to Twin Falls.

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The Magic Valley hospital had 39 patients with COVID-19 on Monday — 26% of all the patients admitted that day — according to the health system’s public data. It had more COVID-19 patients than all three hospitals in the Treasure Valley combined.

As coronavirus surges in Magic Valley, “people aren’t wearing masks”

Health care workers in Twin Falls want the public to take seriously the risks of COVID-19 — not only because the disease can land them in the hospital for days or even weeks, but because that hospital doesn’t have an endless supply of beds, nurses and doctors. If there are too many COVID-19 patients, it becomes much harder to help a person who shows up with a heart attack or stroke.

“I’ve spent all day trying to talk to anybody and everybody that could try to help impact this,” Kern said Friday, after a night when the hospital was just one to two patients away from hitting its capacity. “… I’m concerned that we’re headed to the point that we need to start calling for mandates and outside intervention.”

The South Central Public Health District board hasn’t mandated masks for the Magic Valley. The board in July issued a proclamation that face coverings are “strongly encouraged” in shared public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.

But many in the Magic Valley carry on as they did before a new, highly contagious virus started to fill up their hospital.

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“In the community, you go almost anywhere, people aren’t wearing masks,” Hansen said.

Some of the patients at St. Luke’s tell their health care providers that they may be able to trace back where they caught the coronavirus — to someone who was infected but didn’t stay away from others, to a family party where someone was sick but didn’t know it, to a crowded event like the Oktoberfest three weeks ago in downtown Twin Falls, where photos show few masks and many close-up interactions.

Kern said he believes his community can get the virus under control. “Really, avoid social gatherings and wear your mask out in public,” he said.

Twin Falls hospital during a COVID-19 spike

Several weeks ago, Hansen says, she would test one to two patients for the coronavirus during a shift.

Not anymore.

“On Tuesday, I swabbed seven or eight … and all but two came back positive,” she said. And she’s not the only one doing the tests. There are anywhere from four to 12 nurses working in the ER at any given time, she said.

“Now, we have people walking up to the desk (at the emergency room), and we look at them and say, ‘Oh crap, you have COVID,’” Hansen said. “We know before we even test them.”

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Hansen worked on a recent Friday, Sunday and Tuesday. The nights were “crazy busy,” as they admitted more patients. According to St. Luke’s publicly available COVID-19 data, the hospital went from 26 patients with COVID-19 that Friday, to 39 by Sunday. One in three patients in the hospital that Sunday had COVID-19, according to St. Luke’s data.

The pace has been relentless in the past couple of weeks.

“Some days, I get done with work, and it’s just like I feel like I’ve been run through a paper shredder,” said Jake Jarvie, a registered nurse who works in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit.

Jarvie caught the virus in mid-September. Even though his illness was relatively mild, he still has a deep cough. It was difficult to be isolated from his family, without his support system, and fearful that he would give the virus to them. (He didn’t.)

“I don’t want (anyone) to have this, it’s rough,” he said.

Now, he’s back at work on the hospital floor for people with lung, heart and stroke issues. These days, most of the patients are there because of COVID-19. Most of them aren’t being intubated now. The medical treatment of COVID-19 has evolved, and patients are staying on high-flow oxygen instead of being put on ventilators as quickly when their lungs aren’t working. But they’re still very sick and can’t be sent home.

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Sometimes, a patient needs more oxygen than they can get with just a high-flow oxygen tube attached to their nose. That requires something Jarvie never had to do before COVID-19 — putting an oxygen mask on top of the nasal cannula.

Jarvie, Hansen and other health care staff told the Idaho Statesman that they’re committed to helping their patients, and they feel like St. Luke’s is taking good care of them. But the thrum of coronavirus can be exhausting.

“I think I did four admissions today, and every one of them was COVID,” one health care provider said. “On some shifts, we’re just admitting COVID patients.”

Jarvie and Hansen said they understand the fatigue that sets in among Idahoans. Jarvie thinks he probably caught the coronavirus out in the community, after letting down his own guard.

But the virus is real, and Idahoans of all ages — including children, teens and young adults — are being hospitalized, according to state data.

“You want to tell me it doesn’t exist, why do I have three or four of my patients (in the COVID-19 unit) needing 40 liters of oxygen?” Jarvie said.

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On a recent day, one-quarter of the COVID-19 patients in the hospital were under the age of 60, and several were in their 40s, Kern said in a St. Luke’s video filmed at the Twin Falls hospital.

Hansen said she hopes that people will hear what’s happening in Twin Falls and decide to take COVID-19 risks more seriously — and not be hostile to those who try to do their part.

“People are being so harsh to the messenger, and the person who is trying to help them avoid COVID,” she said. “We see people get so upset and mean with us about visitor policies and wearing masks … but it’s not our fault. And we know that they’re just trying to find an outlet (for their feelings about the pandemic), but it’s not going to go away unless we do our part. And kindness is what’s going to help us get through it.”

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