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Statewide surge of COVID cases being felt in eastern Idaho

Coronavirus

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POCATELLO — At the current rate of spread, Idaho is projected to see around 30,000 new cases of COVID-19 per week by mid-October. At its peak last December, the state was seeing around 20,000 new cases per week.

During a news conference Tuesday, Idaho state deputy epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner said that a recent surge of COVID cases has already surpassed last summer.

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch added that the current surge is being driven primarily by the especially transmissible Delta variant.

“We continue to be extremely alarmed by the increasing trends we’re seeing in Idaho, with our COVID-19 cases,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

“It looks like it could be a very grim winter for us,” Turner added. “At least a grim fall.”

The bottom line is, we need more Idahoans to take action and get vaccinated.

The target vaccination percentage to achieve herd immunity, according to Southeastern Idaho Public Health District Director Maggie Mann, is 90%. But 70% is more achievable goal that could be sufficient for slowing the spread of the virus. The current statewide vaccination rate sits at 52%, Shaw-Tulloch said, with the 18-to-34 demographic representing the lowest rate of vaccination — around 35%.

This recent surge has led health service providers and hospital employees to leave the industry.

Shaw-Tulloch said that one large hospital in northern Idaho currently has 500 open positions. And while that represents that extreme, the staff shortage is a statewide problem.

With intensive care unit patient numbers continuing to rise, that becomes an even greater issue. There are 544 ventilators available in the state, according to Idaho state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn, and COVID patients are using 65. But with current staffing issues, Hahn worries that there may not be enough manpower to properly operate all of them in October.

Idaho COVID numbers
Idaho COVID numbers. | Courtesy Idaho Department of Health and Welfare

See the county-by-county COVID-19 numbers here.

“The bottom line is, we need more Idahoans to take action and get vaccinated,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

Hahn agreed that vaccination will not turn the tides on the surge immediately, but called defeating the virus a “long haul.”

East Idaho represents a microcosm of the state’s recent surge.

SIPH reported 168 new cases last week, up from a weekly low of four cases the week of June 13. Meanwhile, the Eastern Idaho Public Health District has reported 45 news cases so far this week — in just two days.

Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, in Idaho Falls, has seen this influx firsthand. EIRMC is treating 26 COVID patients, according to spokeswoman Coleen Niemann. Of those patients, 13 are in the ICU, and one is in the pediatric intensive care unit.

“Since Aug. 1, we have admitted 34 people to EIRMC because of COVID illness, which exceeds the total number of patients admitted with COVID in the entire month of July (when we admitted 28 people, and June, when we admitted 16),” Niemann said in an email to EastIdahoNews.com. “The combination of surge in COVID hospitalizations along with an increase in trauma have strained resources, most notably staffing. On many shifts over the last few months, our inpatient units have been at or near capacity, including in the ICU.”

Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello and Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot declined to give their COVID numbers. Both referred EastIdahoNews.com to the state information presented in Tuesday’s news conference.

One subject broached during the state’s COVID briefing was “breakthrough cases” — or COVID cases in patients fully vaccinated against the virus.

According to Hahn, those cases are being confirmed — SIPH has confirmed 164 such cases in its district. But symptoms are proving to be both shorter-lived and milder in those cases.

Hahn also said that research has shown that vaccinated people can be carriers of the Delta variant. But because the symptoms subside quicker in those cases, the vaccinated do not carry the virus for nearly as long.

Vaccination and safe practices continue to be the key to a return to normalcy, according to Hahn, Turner and Shaw-Tulloch. Masks and physical distancing, while not mandated, are encouraged by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, particularly with schools reopening soon.

RELATED | Idaho Gov. Brad Little warns of school interruptions if more don’t get COVID vaccine

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