‘Headed in a better direction’: Health officials think Idaho is past delta COVID peak

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With Idaho’s test positivity rate and hospitalization rate declining for multiple weeks, health officials are becoming more confident that the state is past the peak of the COVID-19 delta surge.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said the state has “likely” already hit the peak of the current wave.

“Testing positivity has declined for the past four weeks, and the number of new cases has started to flatten out,” he said at the press briefing. “For the first time since July, things are headed in a better direction.”

After reaching a test positivity rate of 16% the week of Sept. 5, that number started falling each week, and it was 10.6% for the week of Oct. 3, which is the most recent data available. That still far exceeds the 5% that experts like to see to demonstrate control of the virus spread.

Jeppesen also noted that there are “encouraging trends” in the hospitalization data.

After peaking at 793 patients hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 on Sept. 29, the number has declined, and it hit a daily average census of 615 as of Oct. 16.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units is also down, from a peak of 213 on Sept. 24 to a daily average census of 108 as of Oct. 16.

Still, health officials emphasized that the state remains in crisis standards of care, with many hospitals experiencing patient levels at or near their capacity. Hospitals in the Treasure Valley and North Idaho still have more patients than they did when crisis standards were activated, and the state will not return to standard levels of care until the number of patients declines further and staffing ratios at hospitals are better, according to Jeppesen.

Most surgeries that do not have a high level of urgency are still on hold.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the Idaho Division of Public Health. But she said she was feeling “cautious optimism.”

She emphasized that although the entire state is well above that aimed-for 5% test positivity rate, certain parts of Idaho have especially high transmission. In Boundary County, the positivity rate for the week of Oct. 3 was 34.3%. In Shoshone County, it was 30.1%.

Of Idaho’s 44 counties, 41 are experiencing high community transmission, as classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Shaw-Tulloch said.

How deaths, cases have changed during the pandemic

Since vaccines have become widely available in 2021, patients being hospitalized from and dying of COVID-19 have gotten younger. For Idahoans 18 to 49, the number of COVID-19 deaths has almost tripled since 2020, according to Shaw-Tulloch.

Health officials continue to emphasize vaccination against COVID-19 as the most important factor affecting virus-related health outcomes. Idaho’s best vaccination rate is in those people 65 and older, with 78.6% of that age group fully vaccinated.

Among Idahoans who are not vaccinated, the average age of a person with a positive case is 39.5 years, health officials said. Among those who are fully vaccinated, the mean age is 53 years, according to Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist.

She added that people with compromised immune systems make up more than 40% of breakthrough cases among people who are fully vaccinated.

“It’s a different population that is getting vaccine breakthrough cases in general,” she said.

Since May, 87% of cases, 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, 92% of intensive care patients and 86% of deaths have been among unvaccinated people, according to data from Health and Welfare.

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