Breaking News
More () »

COVID-19 omicron variant: 'We expect we will see more,' Idaho state epidemiologist says

The first confirmed Idaho case of the omicron variant was reported Dec. 3. It is linked to illnesses and at least one death in other countries.

BOISE, Idaho — Some key COVID-19 indicators are leveling off or "in some cases, going the wrong direction," Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Tuesday afternoon.

The 14-day moving average of new daily cases in Idaho rose from 384.71 on Dec. 6 to 426.93 on Monday, Dec. 13 -- still less than one-third the numbers at the peak of the most recent surge in early October, but signaling an increase in cases over the past week after weeks of declining numbers.

COVID-related hospitalizations, which also began dropping steadily after hitting all-time highs in late September and early October, stopped declining in the week that ended Saturday, Dec. 11 -- when the number of patients with COVID-19 in Idaho hospitals averaged 312, including 84 patients in an intensive-care unit, and 52 on ventilators.

In an IDHW briefing on COVID-19 in Idaho, Jeppesen also noted that the rate of COVID-19 PCR tests yielding positive results has stayed flat - "around 7%" - over the most recent four weeks.

"The target is five percent," Jeppesen said.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a new concern in the pandemic that has affected the U.S. and the state of Idaho for 21 months now.

Central District Health last Friday confirmed the omicron variant in someone infected with COVID-19, the first known omicron case in the state of Idaho. Central District Health said that person, an Ada County resident, had "very mild" symptoms, "likely due to being vaccinated." That person also had recently traveled out of state.

The delta variant believed to have driven the COVID-19 surge in August and September remains the primary variant of concern. The Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare has reported 7,536 delta cases this year.

However, state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said, omicron "seems to be starting to compete" against the delta variant.

Hahn noted that the CDC estimates 3% of new COVID infections in the U.S. are omicron variant. In South Africa, where omicron was first reported, the estimate is more than 90%. Hahn said it's also spreading quickly in Great Britain, and expected to be "predominate" very soon in London.

"Unfortunately, omicron seems to be causing enough disease that it's a concern," she said.

While the case recently reported in Ada County was in someone who experienced mild symptoms, Hahn said data from other countries where omicron has more of a foothold suggest that won't necessarily be the case for everyone.

"It's important to note that as more people get infected with something, even on the average if it gets milder, that surge of cases will eventually lead to some percentage of folks being very sick and getting hospitalized. We are concerned about our hospitals and our healthcare's ability to take care of a surge of cases," Hahn said.

Through the pandemic there's been a theory and hope that eventually the primary strain of COVID could be contagious but not carry the health impacts and symptoms with it. Meaning, that through so many mutation the virus becomes very, very mild to the point that it's like a cold.

Some hoped omicron would be that, but it appears that is not the case. But hypothetically, Dr. Hahn says a mutation to that point would be a welcome development.

"We would feel that the pandemic was essentially under control or over if it became something like a cold virus or something that caused only very mild illness. But, I think what's important to note is that these new variants coming along might be more severe. They might be a little milder, but there's nothing driving them towards becoming milder and milder," Hahn said.

Also from Tuesday's briefing: COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths among Idahoans living in long-term care facilities are down significantly compared to this time a year ago. Jeppesen said that's due to a large number of long-term care residents receiving the vaccine, which became available in December 2020.

About 51.3% of Idaho residents five years of age and older are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. More than 57% have received at least one dose. A third "booster" dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is authorized for adults. As of Tuesday, more than 34% of Idaho's population 18 and older had received a booster. While the percentage of fully vaccinated people in Idaho is below the national average, the rate of Idahoans receiving a booster dose exceeds the national average, which is 29.2%.

Video of Tuesday's briefing (mobile users tap here):

Facts not fear: More on coronavirus

See our latest updates in our YouTube playlist:



Before You Leave, Check This Out