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Idaho Health and Welfare working to step up testing for COVID-19 delta variant

As the more contagious delta variant emerges across the U.S., Health and Welfare is working to test more positive COVID samples for the variant

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said that COVID-19 metrics like daily case counts and COVID hospitalizations are now heading in the wrong direction.

“Unfortunately, I wish I had better news, the overall state COVID-19 numbers have taken a turn for the worse in the past few weeks,” Jeppesen said during a media briefing Tuesday.

One piece of data people are pointing out in a good light though is the amount of the more contagious delta variant cases in Idaho, the state’s website only shows nine confirmed cases. 

So it appears delta variant cases are under control and rare but Idaho epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said there is more to the situation than just that number.

“We’ve been a bit hampered by our inability to do a lot of testing in Idaho to date,” Hahn said.

Idaho health experts explained that the process of sequencing positive COVID tests to find out if they are the delta strain is an intricate process. Frankly, they haven’t been able to test for it at a high frequency. But, that is set to change, soon.

“We're happy to announce that through partnerships with other laboratories including, in particular, the VA Medical Center, which you may recall has been helping out with PCR testing all along, now has been assisting us with sequencing and so we have a bump this week where we have over 284 samples that we now have results on,” Hahn said.

Those results are not reflected yet in the state data, but Hahn says out of the 284 samples there are 26 new delta variant results in addition to the nine already documented.  

“I think what we are starting to see is what we’ve been expecting, which is we are starting to see delta coming into our state in greater numbers and greater proportions,” Hahn said.

Hahn expects that as more testing is done, more delta variant will be found.

“We’ve been discouraged that some people have interpreted our low numbers as thinking that we don’t really have that variant here or not very much of it,” Hahn said.

So, to further step up testing and delta data, the Department of Health and Welfare is working with medical providers to generate more samples for testing.

“We have requested, twice, for hospitals and laboratories around the state to send us all of their positives that have, what we call a strong positive or a strong signal on PCR, which means they are likely to be able to be sequenced because there is enough genetic material to be sequenced,” Hahn said.

As Hahn alluded to, getting results for variants can be tricky. Dr. Christopher Ball with the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories explains the challenges they’ve seen with samples.

“We need to have a relatively high amount of viral material, viral genetic material, in the samples and because we are getting leftover specimens that have already tested positive, we need to account for the fact that they need to be repackaged and shipped and there can be some degradation that can occur during that shipping and packing process,” Ball said.

So while state healthcare leaders work to generate better data on what the delta variant is doing in Idaho, Dr. Hahn says the fact remains that we know the delta variant is circulating and spreading through the state.

“We are hoping that Idahoans understand this as a warning that we do have delta here, we do have the numbers increasing, and we urge you to go ahead and consider vaccination now," Hahn said. "We do anticipate that we will continue to see numbers rise, we will continue to see more people in the hospital because we know this variant is starting to spread.” 

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