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COVID-19 hospitalizations hit new high in Idaho, health leaders worried about rising number of infected children

They expressed concerns about hospitalization rates, the mistreatment of health care workers and the rising number of children coming down with COVID-19.

BOISE, Idaho — The latest COVID-19 numbers from the state were released Tuesday afternoon. Idaho reported 1,355 new COVID cases, along with 40 new deaths.

Hospitalizations in the Gem State hit a new high with 774 people hospitalized with COVID as of Friday. Another 206 people are in the ICU. That's just one person away from the record.

Meanwhile, vaccination rates continue to climb nationwide but not as much here in Idaho. A little more than half of Idaho's eligible population has been vaccinated. Idaho trails far behind the national average with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. 

Top Idaho health officials answered questions from the media Tuesday afternoon center and expressed concerns about hospitalization rates, the mistreatment of health care workers and the rising number of children coming down with COVID-19.

Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said crisis standards of care are still in effect statewide and the number of COVID-19 patients continues to exceed the number of health care resources available, and that's reflected in the hospitalization data.

"We expect these numbers to continue to increase. We do not see where this is going to turn around just yet," Jeppesen said. Another alarming trend is the significant rise in the number of long-term care centers in Idaho that now have residents with COVID. It's gone from 14 centers in early July to 140 last week.

A lot of the discussion centered on children and the spread of the virus in Idaho schools. Nampa School District Superintendent Paula Kellerer joined the call and shared what's happening in her school district and Region 3. She is President of Region 3 superintendents and has her pulse on what's happening in the southwest area of the state. 

She says around 30% of Nampa schools staff have tested positive for COVID, were waiting for test results or have been out sick for some other reason. One elementary school was forced to shut down for several days due to a shortage of substitute teachers and staff. The school has since reopened. Nearly 95% of districts in region are struggling with finding substitutes, bus drivers and other staff members. 

"There are over 200 classrooms in southwest Idaho right now who do not have a substitute in them, so they're open classrooms scrambling to meet those needs," Kellerer said.

In addition, she said school attendance has dropped off. About 80% of Nampa students have not attended school regularly during the first month. The district is still missing about 15% of its high school students, 12% of middle schoolers, and around 10% of elementary school students every day. Kellerer says parents are not getting children tested for COVID and so they don't have accurate data to report. Right now, the Nampa School District is averaging more than 100 positive COVID cases per week.

"We are currently nearing 600 student cases, that number we did not see last year until the middle of January," Kellerer said. "So, in the first six weeks of school we are at about the same number as we were approaching the middle of January last year."

The district is now seeing more COVID cases among younger students.

"This morning as we analyzed data from last week was the first time in the first six weeks of school that our elementary positive cases have exceeded our high school positive cases," she said. "And it's interesting to note that 30% percent of those case in the elementary are coming to us from our pre-school, kindergarten and first grade classes."

Deputy state epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner said infections among Idaho children has recently skyrocketed, reaching record levels in the past few weeks. Children now make up around 20% of all COVID cases statewide, which is much higher than last year. Last week alone, there were 1,700 cases among children reported.

"In fact, the weekly number of cases identified among Idahoans less than 18 years of age had doubled since mid-August," Turner said. 

This has led to an increase in pediatric hospitalizations.  She said transmission of the virus can be reduced among those 12-17 by getting them vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for that age group.

Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the Division of Public Health, issued a plea to the public to get vaccinated.

"We need your help to keep our schools, our businesses, our hospitals, and our communities open and functioning," she said. "We need your help to prevent the spread of the disease impacting so many lives."

Shaw-Tulloch got tearful as she talked about the victims. She said she personally looked at all the names of all 2,790 COVID deaths to honor and humanize them. She added the victims are getting younger and are mostly unvaccinated.

"I worry every single day about the potential of seeing a child's death notice because they were perhaps they were too young to get a vaccine or had underlying health conditions that prevented them from getting a vaccine," Shaw-Tulloch said.  

She and others on Tuesday's call expressed gratitude to have to opportunity to get out a fact-based message to the public.

"It's disheartening to hear that our health care workers have moved from feeling like heroes to feeling at risk," Jeppesen said. "...We need to be thanking them, they are giving everything they have to help people." 

He urged people to reach out to health care workers around them and thank them as they experience significant challenges and trauma in their work as they care for the COVID patients.

"Even those folks who are potentially hostile towards health care workers, when they have to go to the hospital they are going to be cared for with the same compassion, care and dignity as any other patient that comes through the door."

Watch the full COVID-19 media briefing below on our YouTube channel.

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