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COVID-19 in Idaho: number of new cases 'high, but declining,' Health and Welfare director says

Hospital capacity remains a concern. One reason: the flu is starting to show up as the coronavirus continues to circulate.

BOISE, Idaho — COVID-19 case numbers have surged since mid-summer in Idaho, but they're starting to decline -- or at least level off -- in most parts of the state, Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Tuesday afternoon.

However, Jeppesen said, "the number of cases, hospitalizations, ICU stays and deaths remain too high."

1,344 confirmed and probable cases were reported around Idaho on Tuesday. The 14-day moving average of new cases has been 1,000 per day or more since September 9.

The 14-day average on Tuesday, October 26, was 1219.86, noticeably lower than the average of 1286.64, posted on Oct. 2. That was the highest point in the so-called "fourth wave" -- which surged from a 14-day average of 65.93 on July 5 to numbers nearly 20 times that in late September and early October.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped sharply in recent days. The statewide census - the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 - on Saturday, Oct. 23, was 570, with 163 of those patients in intensive care (ICU). On Sept. 24, 793 people in Idaho were hospitalized with COVID, and 213 were in an ICU.

Jeppesen said while the trend is now heading in a "better direction," COVID-19 case numbers remain much higher "than they need to be," and hospitals are still stretched.

Also, Jeppesen said, the numbers are not improving in North Idaho, specifically in the Panhandle Health District. He said that district accounted for 22 percent of the state's new COVID-19 cases in the week that ended Oct. 23.

"Keep in mind the Panhandle is about 14 percent of the overall Idaho population," Jeppesen said.

Statewide, the testing positivity rate dropped to 12 percent for the week of Oct. 10-16. In some counties within the Panhandle district, Jeppesen said, the rate exceeded 25 percent.

Crisis standards of care, authorized statewide on Sept. 16, remain active.

Jeppesen and Idaho Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch indicated that crisis standards are not yet going away. One reason: flu season.

"Flu season is already very much upon us," Shaw-Tulloch said. "We've already had lab confirmation of influenza in Idaho. So this is, of course, on top of that high watermark of COVID cases that we have... As the director pointed out, our COVID cases hit somewhat of a plateau, or leveling off, but the numbers are still quite high... hospitals continue to see a very large volume of people who are sick with COVID-19. It's important to note this because as flu cases begin to mount this early in the year, while hospitals are still very full... we will not be able to readily retract from our crisis standards of care."

Shaw-Tulloch said it's "very important" to get the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine -- as well as a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, if you're eligible.

"We don't want our holiday season to turn into another spike in cases," Shaw-Tulloch said, before urging Idahoans to continue to wear masks in close quarters, practice six feet of physical distancing, and avoid large gatherings of people closely packed together.

COVID-19 vaccine boosters are now available at clinics around Idaho. State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn noted that "mix-and-match" has been deemed acceptable, meaning people do not necessarily need to receive the same brand of vaccine for their booster dose as they did for their initial vaccination.

Right now, Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for people 12 years of age and older. That is expected to change soon. An FDA advisory panel on Tuesday recommended approval of a pediatric dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5 to 11.

Idaho Immunization Program manager Sarah Leeds said those pediatric doses are ready to be shipped as soon as the CDC makes the recommendation. Hahn said because the dosages for children will be different than dosages of the vaccine for adults, health care providers will go through some trainings.

The Idaho Health and Welfare officials made their remarks in a media briefing that lasted about 41 minutes. It is available for viewing here.

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