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COVID-19 cases surge in Idaho, but death rates remain low. Why?

Coronavirus

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IDAHO FALLS — For the last couple weeks, headlines in Idaho and the nation have detailed a sharp rise in novel coronavirus cases in the United States, while at the same time reporting a declining death rate.

That’s evident in Idaho’s numbers. On July 1, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 6,370 — confirmed and probable — cases of COVID-19 since March 12, but a week later, on July 7, the number skyrocketed to 8,539.

But despite a major jump in cases, we only see a couple of new deaths per week. IDHW data shows the highest number of COVID-19 deaths occurred in April and has since either declined or stayed steady. The exception appears to have occurred Wednesday, when Idaho reported four new deaths, the highest number in a single day since April.

So far, Idaho has still seen under 100 COVID-19 deaths — 78 confirmed and 20 probable — for a total of 98.

A case is considered probable if a person has not been tested or a test is pending, and the person has all the symptoms of COVID-19, has come into direct contact with an infected person, and developed symptoms within the expected timeframe.

A probable COVID-19 death includes those who didn’t receive a viral test, but who came into contact with an infected individual, showed signs of COVID-19, and symptoms developed in the expected timeframe. Additionally, a death is probable, when a doctor or coroner indicates COVID-19 contributed to a death on a death certificate, using only clinical criteria to diagnose them. See the criteria here.

Age and increased circulation of COVID-19

Eastern Idaho Public Health spokeswoman Mimi Taylor said we’re seeing a greater number of cases while having fewer deaths because the virus is spreading through less vulnerable people.

“More and more of our tests are coming back positive. So it’s not just that people are being tested more — it is that there’s more virus circulating,” she said. “But what we believe right now is that the vulnerable populations who are the most at risk, which would be the ones that if they are infected would end up in the hospital and potentially dying, we feel that more than likely they’re not being exposed, (and) they’re taking preventative actions.”

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In other words, more young people are being infected, but in the majority of cases, they are recovering. COVID-19 has an extremely high recovery rate, and the vast majority of people who catch the virus — especially younger people — will get better at home with no problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although there are cases of younger people who have died of COVID-19, nationally, the majority of deaths have been among those older than 65 years old, CDC data shows.

In Idaho, all of the deaths have been in people over 50 years old, and the majority — or 62 — of the deaths have been in people over 80 years old, according to IDHW.

One of the major factors in COVID-19 deaths locally, nationally, and internationally appears to be nursing homes, assistive living and group homes. In early June, the Idaho Statesman reported that 289 coronavirus infections happened at 25 care facilities in Idaho. Those infections resulted in 52 deaths, which was about 63% of the total death count in Idaho during the same time.

In June, USA Today reported that over the last three months, more than 40,600 long-term care residents and workers have died of COVID-19. That was about 40 percent of the nation’s death toll attributed to the coronavirus. In Canada, about 81 percent of its 8,700 COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes, according to an article from Vox published on July 2.

Taylor said that’s due to a combination of factors. Older people are more susceptible, and those in nursing homes typically have some health conditions that require them being cared for.

“The No. 1 risk for most diseases as we get older is our age because our bodies just don’t function as well as we need,” she said. “Not many people in nursing homes are getting healthier every day. That’s a sad reality, so you have to be so careful with that population.”

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Right now, the age group that has the most cases of the virus in Idaho are those ages 18 to 29. Since mid-March, there have been 3,016 cases in that age group, including probable cases and those that have been lab-confirmed. But although they have the most cases out of any age group, they have yet to have a death.

“We’re seeing increased cases in younger demographics, particularly the 18 (and) 19 to 30-year-old group, but that has yet to translate into infections in older populations,” Taylor said. “And whether that’s just a matter of time, it’s our hope that all these increased infections, that these people who are young and infectious are hopefully being very careful when they’re around older adults and people who are more at risk.”

Other COVID concerns

“A lot of people focus on, ‘Oh, if I just do this one thing then I’m fine.’ It really is a cumulative effort of how they all work together.

Statistically speaking, death tolls due to COVID-19 will remain very small in the United States compared to recovery rates. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other concerns associated with catching the virus.

Idaho Falls Community Hospital Infectious Diseases Specialist Dr. Richard Nathan said that even if a person doesn’t die from COVID-19, it doesn’t mean they won’t have health issues down the road. He said they’re seeing a lot of pneumonia with COVID-19, and some patients who are getting lung infections might end up on oxygen permanently, and others might even need lung transplants.

“A lot of people think that it’s just a matter of how many people are dying. It’s not just how many people are dying, (but) how many people will be affected for the rest of their lives,” Nathan said.

Nathan said they are just beginning to get a handle on how the virus affects people, but he added it’s very likely there will be outbreaks over the next few years. He also said it’s possible people might get COVID-19 more than once.

“A lot of people have been talking about something called herd immunity, where if enough people in the community get a disease, they kind of protect everyone else,” he said. “It’s very unlikely to happen with COVID-19.”

The Mayo Clinic reports that to achieve herd immunity, about 70 percent of Americans would need to be exposed to the virus, which is about 200 million people. If all of them got sick at once, it may overwhelm the health care system. It’s also not clear how reinfection might impact this.

To slow the spread of the virus, Taylor wants the public to remember the importance of washing hands, staying home when sick and covering coughs.

“There’s a lot of stuff right now about masks, but that’s just one piece,” Taylor said. “A lot of people focus on, ‘Oh, if I just do this one thing then I’m fine.’ It really is a cumulative effort of how they all work together.”

The latest state/eastern Idaho COVID-19 numbers

As of Wednesday evening, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reports the number of confirmed and probable cases statewide is 8,969. Of those positive cases, 2,978 people have now lived at least 30 days since initial infection and are presumed recovered.

So far, 411 people in the entire state have required hospitalization for COVID-19 since mid-March.

COMPARE WITH LAST WEEK’S NUMBERS

As of Wednesday evening, the number of confirmed or probable cases in eastern Idaho is 609, according to Eastern Idaho Public Health and Southeast Idaho Public Health District. However, the majority of initially infected people are no longer sick. There are 183 people who are still symptomatic and are being monitored by either district.

A little over 400 eastern Idahoans have now recovered from the coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to both health districts. On this side of the state, three people (respectively in Bonneville, Bingham and Bannock counties) have died of COVID-19-related causes.

For more COVID-19 news, click here.

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