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COVID-19 in Idaho: health officials discuss record positivity rates, strain on healthcare capacity

Infections tied to the extremely contagious Omicron variant continue to soar.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho continues to see the effects of a "very, very contagious Omicron variant," the director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said Tuesday afternoon.

Jeppesen and other public health officials with the IDHW spoke about COVID-19 trends in Idaho during what has again become a weekly media briefing.

Dr. Christopher Ball, chief of the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories, said new cases over the past couple weeks have been "almost exclusively Omicron," and he expects Omicron will soon completely displace the Delta variant that drove a surge of COVID-19 cases in August and September of 2021.

The state's most recent testing positivity rate - 25.7% for  the week of Jan. 2-8 - was the highest since the first Idaho COVID case was reported in March of 2020. Some providers, Jeppesen said, are reporting positivity rates as high as 50 percent.

Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist, noted that positivity rate reports are based on a review of records from laboratories that provide testing services, and that the data "do not rely on case investigations or contact tracing."

"The positivity rate helps us monitor what the virus transmission level is in a community," Turner said. "There are things that can impact the positivity rate, including the availability of tests and the number of people who are tested by laboratories versus at-home testing, which is becoming more and more popular to do."

The federal government on Tuesday began beta-testing a website through which Americans may now order up to four free at-home test kits per household.

Idaho health officials view a testing positivity rate of 5 percent or lower as the target, "which would indicate the virus is likely not infecting very many people," Turner said.

On Friday, Jan. 14, the number of new confirmed or probable cases reported in Idaho was 3,266 -- the most for a single day.

"Keep in mind that there are around 22,000 positive test results that we know of that have yet to be reported as cases," Jeppesen added.

While, for most people, Omicron causes a milder form of disease than previous variants, the high rate of illness is taxing the state's healthcare system.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased. Idaho hospitals reported 257 inpatients with COVID-19 on Jan. 1. The count was 378 on Jan. 12. Both of those counts are based on reports from 47 facilities.

"At the same time, the number of healthcare workers out of work due to being infected or exposed to COVID-19 is high, and also increasing," Jeppesen said. "This is resulting in increased stress on our healthcare systems. If this trend continues, it is likely Idaho will enter crisis standards of care for the second time."

News of the latest surge in new cases -- more than 13,000 reported in Idaho over the six-day period from Jan. 10-Jan. 15 -- has some people at increased risk of complications saying they feel stuck at home, and wondering how they can go about their lives in as safe a way as possible.

"Get vaccinated; if you are vaccinated, get the booster shot. We know that some folks are not able to do that, which is why it's so important that people who are around people who are immunocompromised do that to help protect those individuals" said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the Division of Public Health. "We've talked about upgrading masks, we've talked about limiting social interactions and all those things, and just really making sure that they are appropriately living in their environment so that they can venture out and they can do things."

Since November of 2021, COVID-19 case rates in Idaho have increased for both unvaccinated and vaccinated people, but the number of cases is much higher and increasing more rapidly among the unvaccinated.

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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