COVID-19 metrics are on the rise in Idaho.
The week of June 22, the state’s positivity rate increased to 14.3%, which is nearly three times the 5% benchmark public health experts aim for to indicate more control of viral spread.
The prior week, the rate was 12.1%, according to data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The test results are delayed by a week, and health experts have cautioned that they likely do not represent the full picture of the disease’s status in Idaho, given the prevalence of at-home testing.
The testing levels have been on an upward trend since late March.
“We’re clearly in another surge,” said Dr. David Pate, a member of the governor’s Coronavirus Working Group.
The June 22 data, published Thursday, came as much of the Boise area remained at the highest COVID-19 alert level, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the highest alert level, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking.
On Thursday, Health and Welfare tweeted that cases are “increasing.”
The CDC numbers, released Thursday, showed that Ada County’s case rate decreased, from nearly 300 to 249 compared with the previous week. But the county’s hospital metrics increased, from 17 new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 people to 19.2, and from 6.6% of staffed inpatient beds in use by COVID-19 patients to 8%.
Ada, Boise and Elmore counties were all at the highest levels.
In Canyon County, the case rate remained lower than in Ada County, and the county was marked at medium risk. At that level, immunocompromised people are recommended to talk to a health care provider about whether to wear a mask.
Statewide, hospitalizations appeared flat as of Monday, with 130 COVID-19 patients and seven in intensive care, according to state data.
WHAT’S CAUSING THE SURGE?
Regional CDC data, which includes Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, indicated omicron subvariants are ascendant.
A variant known as BA.5 has been increasing rapidly, making up 50% of cases in the region.
Though the situation in other states could skew the data, Pate said that Idaho either has a high proportion of BA.5 cases or will during the coming weeks.
Some data suggested that the Idaho surge may have already peaked. But earlier this year — especially in May and June — the dominant variant in the region was BA.2.12.1. That’s a problem, Pate said.
BA.5 is “the most transmissible of all,” and also appears to have the greatest ability to escape immunity, meaning that people who were infected this spring could still get infected again this summer, Pate said.
“We could see another blip as BA.5 now increases,” which could put Idaho at risk of appearing to move past a surge before another one emerges, he said.
Other countries are further ahead than the U.S. with surges in BA.5, but it’s not easy to conclude how this variant will affect Americans based on their data, Pate said. People could still become severely ill, especially those who are unvaccinated and are relying on natural immunity.
“It’s not over for the summer, I suspect,” he said. “Things may get worse before they get better.”
As scientists have learned more about COVID-19, one lesson has been the significance of fusogenicity, which refers to the ability of the virus to merge cells in the lungs.
Normally, a virus has to enter a cell, replicate itself, exit and infect another cell. But once cells are merged, the virus is able to “move right through all the cells,” causing lots of damage, Pate said.
The body’s antibodies, which can fight the virus, only do so when the virus is between cells, he said.
The earliest sublineages of omicron appeared to be less fusogenic than other strains, which made some people think that omicron would be more mild, Pate said. But research on BA.4 and BA.5 indicated that their fusogenic potential has increased, which could mean more severe infections.
“This is not the same virus as the early omicron variants,” he said. “It is different.”