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Gov. Brad Little visits Portneuf Medical Center, offers encouragement and discusses COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Pocatello

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Governor Brad Little discusses COVID response and ICU procedures with Portneuf Medical Center Critical Care Director Amy Hemsley during a visit to the facility Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Little recently assigned the Idaho National Guard to assist the handling and implementation of COVID vaccinations throughout the state. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

POCATELLO — For the first time since its grand opening in May 2011, Gov. Brad Little paid a visit to Pocatello’s Portneuf Medical Center.

This time, rather than admiring the new facility, the governor was there as part of a statewide tour of medical centers, both giving and receiving status updates.

Little told EastIdahoNews.com that the state’s current stockpile of doses is not enough to completely vaccinate Idahoans 65 years of age or older, which is the next phase of the vaccination rollout, starting Monday.

“It’s going to be a team effort, and we’re going to have to scale up to a higher level,” Little said.

“Right now, the problem is that we just don’t have enough vaccines. When we get more vaccines we can flip the switch and vaccinate three or four times as many people.”

Gov. Brad Little Brad Little discusses COVID-19 vaccination preparedness with Portneuf CEO Jordan Herget (standing, far left) and Chief Medical Officer Daniel Snell (seated, right). | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Little was told by the White House this week that the state will receive 24,000 first doses per week for the next three weeks. The 65-plus phase of vaccinations is scheduled to begin Monday and there are approximately 250,000 Idahoans that fall into this demographic.

“Realistically, it’s going to take us, probably, two months to get through [the entire 65-plus phase],” he said, adding that the state is prepared to “ramp up” the rollout should more doses become available.

Efforts to “ramp up,” as the governor put it, have already been set in motion. Last week, Little increased the number of Idaho National Guard assisting with the vaccination rollout, preparing for larger-scale clinics.

The National Guard began assisting with entrance screening at Portneuf on Jan. 26, according to the medical center’s CEO Jordan Herget. There are currently eight members of the Idaho National Guard stationed at Portneuf, with another 36 assisting in Fort Hall, National Guard General Michael Garshak told EastIdahoNews.com.

Little said the National Guard’s ability to offer logistical aid will be paramount once the state is prepared to vaccinate at a higher rate.

“The health professionals here are going to give the shots” Little said. “[The National Guard] has to make sure that we’re taking care of the vaccine, and the guard is really good at that — I’ve even been to facilities where the guard medics have been giving the shot.”

Currently, according to Herget, Portneuf clinics are able to vaccinate just over 30 patients per hour.

Touring the ICU

Little was also in town to acknowledge the work of hospital staff.

While touring the ICU, the governor visited with Portneuf Critical Care Director Amy Hemsley and members of the unit’s staff, a group that Little lauded for its effectiveness.

Gov. Brad Little poses with Portneuf Medical Center ICU staff. The ICU nursing staff consists of 50 nurses, according to Critical Care Director Amy Hemsley. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Several members of the ICU nursing staff were sent to assist two of Portneuf’s sister hospitals in New Jersey last year. In discussions with the staff, Little was assured that Portneuf is more prepared and equipped to handle the pandemic than other facilities. And equally prepared to handle eventual large-scale vaccinations.

“We’re gonna get through this, we’re gonna do it,” he was told. “We’re more aggressive here. … We have the equipment, we’re a lot more ready.”

The Portneuf Medical Center has already seen an improvement. There are currently just 12 COVID patients in the facility, Herget said, four of which are on ventilators. Those numbers have been as high as 30, with 12 needing ventilators, he added.

Herget thanked the governor for taking time to visit with his “resilient staff.”

“I think the staff very much appreciated [the visit],” he told EastIdahoNews.com. “They’ve gone through an amazingly tough year. The governor has led our state, and done a great job in doing that, so, for him to be able to recognize individuals and talk to folks, they really appreciated that. It meant a lot to them.”

The new variant

Little asked several times about Portneuf’s preparedness for the new strain of novel coronavirus that has recently shown up.

“We’ve just got to do what we’re doing,” he said discussing the the new strain with EastIdahoNews.com. “That includes Portneuf and the guard, but also includes the people of Idaho, in doing what they need to do to keep the spread down — social distancing, wearing a face covering, good hygiene … all of that is going to help us. And I don’t think there’s any question that the new strain is in Idaho, because it’s in every state around us.”

From left to right: Idaho National Guard General Michael Garshak, Portneuf Medical Center President and CEO Jordan Herget, Gov. Brad Little and Portneuf Health Trust CEO Shaun Menchaca pose socially distanced for photos before a tour of the medical center. | Kalama Hines, EastIahoNews.com

One key to combatting the new strain, Herget said, is getting hospital staff vaccinated, allowing doctors, nurses and all staff to be ready for a new, potentially more aggressive virus to attack.

“The vaccine is going to be key, and we have over 60 percent of our staff vaccinated,” he said. “That will help against that new strain. We’ll have staff that aren’t exposed or sick in the community, and they’ll be able to take care of our patients.”

As far as in-house vaccinations, Herget told EastIdahoNews.com that the Portneuf staff has grown increasingly accepting of the shots.

While many were early holdouts, that number had dwindled as more and more members of the staff have received vaccinations with little to no side-effects. In fact, not one case of serious allergic reactions has been reported at Portneuf.

Primarily, side-effects at Portneuf have been little more than drowsiness, according to Chief Medical Officer Daniel Snell, with a few cases of cellulitis — a bacterial skin infection.

Before departing for Sandpoint, Little once again expressed his appreciation for the efforts of the Portneuf staff, adding a final word of caution.

“When that new variant gets here, people need to be real careful.”

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