Even as the coronavirus pandemic ravages her state of Idaho, Kitrina Marcroft has a different problem: an aggressive form of bladder cancer.
But surgery will have to wait, she explained in an interview to The Daily Beast this past week. There are too many COVID-19 patients, almost all of them unvaccinated, and not enough beds in Boise, Idaho, hospitals for other patients.
Likewise, Angela Housley said her 80-year-old mother was turned away from a McCall, Idaho, hospital during a metabolic emergency for fear elderly patients would be at risk of contracting COVID inside, she said in an interview.
“It’s just not working—our system is not working,” Housley told The Daily Beast, though she made clear she didn’t question the hospital’s decision.
Hospital officials did not return a request for comment about the two women’s stories. But they match up with the kinds of medical treatment that health-care officials say may be delayed under a form of rationed care the state recently authorized thanks to a deluge of COVID-19 patients.
That hospitals are slammed with coronavirus patients—and other kinds of care might be impacted—is not unique to this moment of the pandemic in America. But what does stand out this summer, in states from Alabama to Idaho, is that paltry rates of vaccination mean hospitals are unnecessarily overflowing with people who have resisted getting shots.
And in western Idaho, that problem comes with local flavor in the form of a far-right doctor who just won a new perch: Ryan Cole.
The newest member of the board that oversees health care in this part of the state, Cole has been, for months now, urging people not to get vaccinated while spreading unsubstantiated conspiracy theories rejected by the medical community at large.
“You try to keep your head up and be positive,” Marcroft told The Daily Beast. “But it is scary and uncertain and I just wish people would just listen to the science and to the experts.”
The problem is that one of the people Idaho medical experts say too many people are listening to is Cole. A dermatopathologist, he last month narrowly won a seat on Central District Health, which oversees health-care issues for roughly one-third of Idaho residents, beating out an epidemiologist who urged Idahoans to get vaccinated.
The Ada County Republican Party backed Cole and far-right figures like Ammon Bundy and at least one militia leader cheered his appointment. Despite widespread condemnation by the medical community, Cole won the seat by a single vote across the four county commissions representing the area covered by the health district.
Cole did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But he has hardly held back in playing the part of pandemic contrarian.
Among other highlights, he has called the COVID-19 vaccines “fake” and even likened the safe and effective shots to “needle rape.”
He has also pushed wild, unsubstantiated theories, like linking mRNA vaccines to cancer, while becoming a darling of the far right. As The Daily Beast previously reported, he appears to be having an impact, advising a charter school against masking right before the school reversed their mask mandate.
Last week, the entire state of Idaho went into crisis standards of care. That means less-critical patients are being turned away from intensive-care units, surgeries like Marcrofts are being delayed, and the state is teetering on the brink of having to decide who gets life-saving treatment and who dies when there are no other options.
At any given time, the number of available ICU beds statewide has been hovering in the low single digits. It fluctuates, of course, often as patients die, freeing a bed ever so briefly for the next in a steady stream of COVID victims pouring into emergency rooms.
But the source of the problem is clear. A spokesman for Idaho’s St. Alphonsus hospital system told The Daily Beast more than 95 percent of their COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated and are the reason for scarce ICU beds.
David Pate, a doctor and former Idaho hospital administrator who co-authored an upcoming book on pandemic responses, said the misinformation coming from Cole is worsening a pandemic for which we have limited tools.
“We have two things—we have masks, and we have a vaccine—and he is undermining both,” Pate told The Daily Beast.
Pate said the fact that Cole has gravitas as a doctor—and now a government health official—makes his statements all the more damaging.
“Our job is not to scare people but our job is to tell them the truth,” Pate said. “What is dangerous about what Dr. Cole is doing is that there are people out there looking for someone with that cloak of authority to tell them what they want to hear.”
Plenty of people are hearing it, or at least open to doing so: Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, at around 40 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, more than 2,600 Idahoans have died from COVID-19, out of a total population of less than 2 million people.
One of the most tragic parts of the surge in cases and deaths is how preventable it is, Pate argued. He pointed to the spring of 2020, when Idaho’s numbers came down temporarily after the state’s Republican Gov. Brad Little ordered a statewide lockdown.
“We do know how to contain this virus,” Pate said. “We do know how to contain the spread. The question is, will we do it?”
Cole’s appointment and the implementation of crisis standards of care come after months of political rancor over the pandemic in the state. Supporters of Ammon Bundy’s anti-government People’s Rights network have showed up at politicians’ houses and picketed health district meetings. Far-right elected officials have spoken out about even modest steps to stop the spread of the virus, spread misinformation, and even held mask-burning rallies.
Housley, who said her elderly mother was turned away at the hospital, told The Daily Beast that those politicians need to be held accountable for worsening the pandemic.
“This is about life and death, and we’re acting like there’s two sides,” she said.
Housley added that her mother was receiving treatment at home, but that she’s terrified another emergency could become life-threatening quickly—even as there is such limited hospital capacity in the state.
“Due to medical triage, my mom is looked at as someone who might not get to live, and it takes my breath away,” she said.
Marcroft added that she stays off social media to limit her exposure to the conspiracy theories that leave her so frustrated with her neighbors, and that even some friends of hers have come out as anti-vaccine.
“What happened to caring about the people around you?” she asked.
Marcroft is imploring people to reject misinformation, spare a thought for people like her in difficult medical circumstances, and get vaccinated.
She says her cause isn’t an ideological one. She just wants to live.
As she asked: “Why are we turning our back on science?”