Special to the Times by Shadrach Robertson


A Special White Pine County Board of Public Health Meeting has been called for this morning, Wednesday, September 15th at 9:00 am in the White Pine County Library conference room.


Dr. Daren Kunz, White Pine County’s Public Health Officer, charged with overseeing the county’s mitigation efforts and overall approach to the Covid-19 public health emergency, called for this special session. He hopes the Board of Public Health, made up of White Pine County Commissioners, will support readjustments to current plans and implement an improved proactive response, in order to combat a steady rise in transmission of the more infectious Delta variant across our community. One month ago, on August 17th, White Pine County reported 20 active cases, 2 hospitalizations and 8 deaths. In the last four weeks, that number has risen to 114 active cases, with 6 hospitalized, and a total of 10 White Pine County resident deaths.


We have come a long way since March 9th, 2020 when White Pine County’s Board of Public Health issued its first decree, advising our community to socially distance if sick, help prevent the spread of covid by washing hands, sanitizing, and wearing a mask if experiencing symptoms. Now, 18 months later, outbreaks have developed in every school in White Pine County, with an entire second grade class now under quarantine. 


The prolonged pandemic is hitting younger people more and more, and they are not alone. Local healthcare workers are also feeling tired, worn out, beleaguered, and burdened under the weight of having been on the front line of the fight for a year and a half. From the covid wing of William Bee Ririe Hospital, I spoke to your neighbors, your friends, your family members, and our homegrown healthcare heroes, about the struggles they are facing with a public at risk of a virus that keeps advancing.


Matt Walker, CEO of William Bee Ririe Hospital is calling for more proactive solutions and for the public to become more educated on the reality of the situation we as a community are facing; “People need to understand this is real. We’ve had patients from this community who’ve not been able to get the care they needed because other hospitals are full, and if it continues, we will get to a point where we’ll only be able to provide care for so many people, because we only have so much staff.  It’s not a scare tactic, it’s reality. Whether you want to believe it or not, whatever, I don’t even care. I want people to understand that this is stressing out our staff, and our building is reaching capacity, so if people are willing to throw on a mask or do something to reduce the spread, it will help us, and it will help them.”

Rationing Health Care is now being practiced in Idaho, due to the surge in covid case volumes overwhelming hospitals across the gem state. Walker explains, “They have an ethics committee, and they have a list, if a patient meets this many points they can be taken in, but if they don’t meet that number, they’ll tell them, ‘I’m sorry there’s nothing we can do for you, go home and… rest in peace.”  A sobering wakeup call, and Walker says is an approach that healthcare has never taken before in the US, outside of transplant situations. This is the scenario Kunz, Walker, and County Commission Chair Richard Howe are trying to avoid locally through discussion in today’s Board of Public Health meeting.


Walker says, “Here, we are seeing a lot more positives, and statistically that means we’ll see more hospitalizations, and we can only take so many. But, statistically if the number of positives continue to go up, a small percentage of those will require hospitalization and statistically there’ll be an increase in deaths as well.”  


In the recent weeks, William Bee Ririe Hospital has met or exceeded their capacity for patients suffering from severe covid symptoms. Hospital staff has been forced to move into additional space and add more beds to accommodate the increase in positive cases requiring hospitalization. Walker described the higher level of care required saying, “When we built this [covid unit] we had four beds, and worried what to do if we went beyond six; so we moved it so we could accommodate up to eight, and then, this last Sunday, what happened, we had eight.”


Jill Burgess-DeSteunder, a Registered Nurse serving in the Covid-19 wing says, “This is a big problem. People aren’t vaccinated. When they get sick, we can’t let family members in. And that’s hard on us, because we have to tell them no. It’s hard to tell family members ‘you can’t see your loved ones,’ so, we just go home and cry.”  The physical, mental, and emotional toll extends to every department within the hospital, RN DeSteunder says, “Everyone is taking care of these patients: Respiratory therapists, admitting doing the intaking, lab techs, housekeeping, maintenance staff, radiology, all of our doctors and pharmacists; it’s not just two or three nurses, it’s affecting everyone.” This influx of positive Covid-19 cases is also adversely affecting the quality of care of non covid patients due to limited resources like space and staff.  On the front line since the beginning, these nurses, doctors, administration, support staff, and crews that help protect White Pine County are now asking for White Pine County to help protect them. 


Dr. Yun Namkung who works in primary and inpatient care at William Bee Ririe, and in Las Vegas, details his experiences with the disease, “We’ve been pretty packed. I thought we maybe would run out of room. And we almost did, in the last week and suddenly, it seems, because this is highly contagious, it’s almost like chicken pox.”  


The youngest White Pine County resident to die from Covid-19 was 37, the oldest, 86. Kunz’s response to those who suggest these deaths are the result of underlying conditions is simple, “There is no rhyme or reason as to who will or won’t die from this. Yes, you are more susceptible if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurological problems, imuno disorders; sure those underlying conditions contribute, but, holy cow, this is serious.”


Covid testing has increased in recent days as well, placing additional burdens on the hospital system. Kunz and the nursing staff estimate an average between 70 to 100 tests per day. “We have plenty of testing supplies. These tests are showing that 40 % of the current cases are children or younger than 18 years old.  20% of current active cases are breakthrough cases, but no one vaccinated is hospitalized right now.” In addition to masks, Kunz and nursing staff recommend everyone get vaccinated as an effective way of protecting yourself and our overly taxed local healthcare system.


“I was scared to death when I got the shot. But, I’m glad I did.” said RN DeSteunder. As with any vaccine, Walker explains, while there may be adverse reactions to the shot, the symptoms are mild, “We’ve seen lightheadedness, dizziness, arm pain, muscle aches, headaches, nothing major, and all self limiting, they were fine after 24 to 48 hours. Out of 200, we had maybe 2 who had issues, but both completely recovered.”


As we looked down the cordoned off Covid hallway, Kunz described the level of care current patients hospitalized with Covid-19 are receiving at William Bee Ririe. Currently, no patients are intubated. However, patients are receiving Vapotherm treatments, a high flow oxygen dispensing system pushing large quantities of O2. “As a standard, people on oxygen may only need 1 to 2 liters, but these people are getting 30 liters. They’re right at the point where if they need more, they’re going to get intubated.”  


The hospital has asked for more oxygen to stay prepared, and the federal government is supplying the hospital with everything they need, including Regeneron monoclonal antibodies. Able to disrupt disease pathology by blocking receptors or interfering with cell-to-cell transmission, Dr. Namkung says Regeneron is working here at William Bee, “If someone gets sick and tests positive, and we catch it early, we have started treating them with the same antibodies Trump got, and they don’t really need to get admitted to the hospital. Survivability is good so far, but a lot more people are coming in.”


The health experts interviewed for this article expressed their support of masks and the vaccine. “This shot has been studied more than the majority of the shots we use,” Kunz says. Masks are not child abuse. Masks do not increase CO2 levels in your blood. Vaccines exponentially increase your survivability if you contract Covid-19, reducing severity of symptoms and risk of hospitalization and death. Swabs do not cause cancer. In our county no one who has died of covid that has had the vaccine. Smallpox was eradicated; Polio was eradicated with vaccines. You will not become magnetized. 


Commission Chair Richard Howe says he is eager for today’s Special County Board of Health meeting. “Daren got a hold of us last week and called for this meeting. I appreciate that call. His authority over the county supersedes everybody,” Howe said. “We have an entire commission that needs to jump on board and educate the community. We need to educate, that’s the important part, maybe not mandating, but if we don’t do something to act, and make some kind of a stance, then we’re not doing our job. We have a duty to our citizens to get them as aware as we can. Take the political bs out of there, and do what’s right. It’s wrong to have children sick. If we don’t do anything to try to help them, then we’re wrong. But it’s something that’s bombarding us right now. I know there are different political spectrums, but hopefully we can make a decision to support our public health officer and our hospital.” 


Kunz added, “There are enough naysayers on the board that make it hard to get anything through but, something now has to give. Our students are being affected. Our community is being affected. Our nurses are being affected. We have to change something, and that will be whatever I can get the board to agree on.”


Vaccines are a personal choice and are a choice you should make through the consultation of your primary care physician. Masks do help slow the spread of aerosol particulates and aerated virus shed through exhalations like breathing, coughing, and sneezing. The Ely Times will continue to report on Covid within our community and the White Pine County Board of Public Health’s decisions and recommendations.