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Charlie Meeker's COVID case sets statewide example of challenges

October 1, 2021
Charlie Meeker, center, is happy to be home after a long bout with COVID, as are family members Kelly and Brady Hinthorn.

Republished with permission

By Scott McIntosh
Idaho Statesman

Idaho Statesman columnist Scott McIntosh
“I got big troubles.”

That’s what Charlie Meeker, 79, said when he started having trouble breathing due to COVID-19.

It’s also when his family knew they needed to get him to a hospital.

And because there were no hospital beds available, Meeker was flown to a hospital in Washington, illustrating how the ravages of COVID-19 in North Idaho spilled over into our neighboring state.

Cindy Calene is the daughter of Meeker’s cousin. A pharmacist by trade, she’s on sabbatical to stay home full time to take care of her mother and her stepfather, who have their own health issues.

Meeker lives in an adjacent house on the property, and Calene also checks in on him and brings him dinner. In normal times, a caregiver would check in on Meeker a couple of days a week to make sure he’s taking his medications and eating. Another person would take him out to do fun activities.

When Meeker first started getting sick, in late August, his symptoms weren’t that bad — a runny nose — but his family suspected COVID-19. They had him tested.

Sure enough, he tested positive.

Calene and her family needed to find a replacement caregiver, but there were no takers because of COVID-19, Calene said. They tried to find a bed for Meeker in a hospital or rehab center, but again, no takers because of COVID-19.

“For about a week, he was OK,” Calene said. “And then he just went down, and that’s what the nurses at the hospital said: They can just turn on a dime and just be in respiratory distress before you know it.”

Even though he was vaccinated, Meeker was susceptible to the virus because of his other health issues, Calene said. Breakthrough cases account for about 2.6% of Idaho’s total COVID-19 cases, according to Idaho Department of Health and Welfare data.

“He ended up with COVID pneumonia,” Calene said. “He was having a really hard time breathing, and he kept saying, ‘I got big troubles.’ That’s what he says when he’s hurting or something.”

Calene called for an ambulance, which took him to Boundary Community Hospital.

In just the five hours that Meeker was in the emergency room at Boundary Community Hospital, his condition worsened, and it was clear he needed to be admitted, Calene said.

The problem was that there were no beds available at the hospital.

“They called me up on the phone and said: ‘We don’t have any rooms. We can’t take him,’ ” Calene said. “And I’m like, he is way too sick. I mean, are you kidding me?”

This was on Sept. 2. On that date, 119 people were in hospitals in the Panhandle Health District with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. That was higher than the peak of the disease last year, when 95 people were in the hospitals on Dec. 23.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the Panhandle Health District rose to 132 patients on Sept. 7, the day that Health and Welfare activated crisis standards of care for the Panhandle and Idaho North Central health districts.

It was the first such declaration in Idaho and a harbinger for the rest of the state in the coming weeks.

“Crisis standards of care is a last resort,” Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said in a press release at the time. “It means we have exhausted our resources to the point that our health care systems are unable to provide the treatment and care we expect. This is a decision I was fervently hoping to avoid.”

Calene said workers at Boundary Community called all around to find a bed for Meeker, but they couldn’t find one in North Idaho available for him.

Finally, they found a hospital that could take him, Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, across the state line in Spokane, Washington.

“I can’t believe they had an opening, to be honest with you,” Calene said.

Within five hours, Meeker was flown by air ambulance to Sacred Heart. He was put on a bilevel positive airway pressure machine, or BPAP, a type of non-invasive ventilator similar to a CPAP machine, to help his breathing.

The overflow of patients from Idaho into Washington has been a sore spot.

“Today in my state, Washington citizens in many cases cannot get heart surgery, cannot get cancer surgery that they need, because we are having to take too many people of unvaccinated nature and unmasked, many of whom come from Idaho, and that’s just maddening, frankly,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said last week in an interview on MSNBC. “So we are calling for Idaho and the leaders there to lead and take some common sense measures.”

On Sept. 16, Idaho activated statewide crisis standards of care. The next day, Sept. 17, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals in the Panhandle district spiked to 140. Statewide, the number of COVID-19 cases hit 1,730.

Meeker stayed in the Washington hospital for nearly two weeks and was released Sept. 15.

Meeker’s story is also an illustration of the importance of getting the vaccine.

Meeker was on steroids and other medications in addition to the BPAP machine, Calene said, but nothing more serious than that.

“The nurses said it was a good thing that he had the vaccine or he’d be on a ventilator,” Calene said.

Unvaccinated patients are making up about 89% of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the St. Luke’s system and comprise nearly 100% of the COVID patients in the ICU, according to St. Luke’s reporting.

Even though she was concerned about Meeker, Calene said she never thought he wasn’t going to make it.

“I guess I trust science enough … when I watch the news and it says 97% of the people who are dying from COVID didn’t get their vaccine,” she said.

Unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So does she think the vaccine saved his life?

“Absolutely,” she said emphatically.

Scott McIntosh is the Idaho Statesman opinion editor. A graduate of Syracuse University, he joined the Statesman in August 2019. He previously was editor of the Idaho Press and the Argus Observer and was the owner and editor of the Kuna Melba News. He has been honored for his editorials and columns as well as his education, business and local government watchdog reporting by the Idaho Press Club and the National Newspaper Association. His weekly newsletter, The Idaho Way, can be read here.

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