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COVID-19 in Idaho: 'Not over,' but state is in a new phase, public health administrator says

Idaho health officials say they're encouraged by dropping case numbers, fewer COVID hospitalizations, and the state's 3.7% test positivity rate.

BOISE, Idaho — It's now been two years since Idaho's first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported. In the months that have followed, the state has reported more than 439,000 total confirmed and probable cases, and 4,819 deaths from the coronavirus that scientists have dubbed SARS-CoV-2.

"I will never forget it: Friday, March 13. So it was a Friday the 13th in the year 2020," Division of Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch said, recalling the day Idaho's first case was confirmed. "Initially, we discussed or focused on building testing capacity at our state lab, informing the public about the virus and trying to prevent the spread of the virus. The turning point in the pandemic came about in December of 2020, when the first COVID vaccine arrived. This marked the availability of a highly effective tool at our disposal to counteract the virus."

The vaccine arrived in the midst of the first of three waves in which new cases numbered 1,000 or more each day. That wave continued into early 2021. The Delta variant had cases and hospitalizations surging in late summer/early fall of 2021, and the Omicron variant brought record-high case numbers in the winter of 2021-22.

The most recent wave peaked in mid-January, and has been declining ever since. The 14-day average of new daily cases hit an all-time high of 2768.86 on January 31. As of March 14, it has dropped to 933.14 new daily cases. Also, the COVID-19 test positivity rate has dropped to 3.7% for the week that ended March 5. That's well below the 5% target Idaho health officials view as an indicator that the virus is likely not continuing to infect many people. 

"We're entering a new phase. Cases and test positivity are now low, but the pandemic is not over," Shaw-Tulloch said Tuesday afternoon during an Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare COVID-19 media briefing.

In response to the recent decline in cases and test positivity, as well as new guidelines from the CDC, some Idaho cities and school districts where mask requirements and other COVID-19 precautions, such as gathering size limits, were in place have recently removed those requirements.  

Recent trends indicate Idaho's COVID-19 situation is heading in the right direction, but Shaw-Tulloch noted that the virus that causes COVID-19 is "here to stay for the foreseeable future." However, she said, Idaho is entering a new phase "marked by ample testing capacity, access to high-quality masks, effective treatment, and plenty of COVID-19 vaccine that is available to those aged five years and older. Many more Idahoans now have some immunity to the virus, either having been infected or vaccinated and boosted."

Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist, said Idaho health officials expect to see "intermittent waves" of COVID-19 spread in the future.

"Vaccine and prior infection do not necessarily result in long-term immunity," Turner said. "Second, we will likely have new variants that emerge over time."

Cases are again surging in China, in an outbreak linked to what's being called a fast-spreading "stealth-Omicron" variant. Also, state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said she and other Idaho health experts are closely watching the Omicron BA.2 variant that has COVID cases on the rise in Europe, and was confirmed in late January in Ada County. Hahn said some of the current treatments such as monoclonal antibodies and new antiviral medications are known to be effective against the BA.2 variant.

"We want to make sure people don't say, 'but you said it was over.' We're not saying it's over. We're saying that like last year, we see things headed in a good direction. We have more reason to hope even than last year that this could be more durable because of the higher population level of immunity, and maybe better tools to respond," Hahn said.

In light of new variants and uncertainty about how much long-term immunity exists for people who have been vaccinated or have previously been infected with COVID-19, another booster may soon be recommended for at least some people who already have had a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna series and one booster dose.

"Right now, there is no recommendation yet," Hahn said when asked about a fourth dose. However, she also said Pfizer has asked the Food and Drug Administration to approve a second booster at least for seniors, and possibly some other people.

"Moderna, on the other hand, right now (is saying)... maybe only immunocompromised may need a fourth dose, so it will be interesting if we see a parting of the ways here between those two mRNA vaccines," Hahn said, adding that for now, "stay tuned" to developments at the FDA, whose special advisory committee is expected to meet some time in April to discuss possible recommendations.

"We have plenty of vaccine and are ready for that (second booster dose) if it's needed," said Sarah Leeds, manager of the Idaho Immunization Program.

Watch the entire briefing here:

The briefing streamed live at KTVB.COM and on the KTVB YouTube channel.

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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