BOISE, Idaho — With the second anniversary of Idaho's first COVID-19 case around the corner, health officials said on Tuesday that the Gem State is entering a new phase of the pandemic.
At a briefing with health officials, Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen reflected on how the pandemic has impacted Idahoans.
"After two years, we are all tired of the pandemic. The coronavirus has disrupted almost every facet of our daily lives," Jeppesen said. "We have all experienced losses due to COVID-19. Losses for all of us include things like less time with loved ones, and far too many have tragically lost family members and friends to COVID-19."
Idaho's first COVID-19 case was reported on March 13, 2020. At the time, Jeppesen said health care systems had limited tools to deal with the novel coronavirus, and vaccines were nearly a year away.
He believes the COVID-19 vaccines were a "turning point" in the pandemic. However, the delta and omicron variant surges presented overwhelming challenges for the Gem State health care system, resulting in the activation of Crisis Standards of Care.
Most recently, Crisis Standards of Care were deactivated across southern Idaho after months of staffing and blood supply shortages stressed the ability of health care providers.
Jeppesen said the pandemic isn't going anywhere despite case numbers and hospitalizations declining.
"Unfortunately, the pandemic is not over," he said. "We are entering a new phase, causing a need for all of us to adjust yet again."
The new phase, Jeppesen said, is "marked by" increased testing capacity, access to high-quality masks, treatments and vaccine availability. To date, the state COVID-19 dashboard reports that 54% of Idahoans are fully vaccinated, and only 44% have received a booster.
"We remain one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country," State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said. "We are concerned. We still have a lot of adults who are very vulnerable to COVID. We will continue to see people coming into the hospital as long as COVID is around, which seems like it is for the long term."
Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started to release weekly COVID-19 risk assessment levels for counties across the United States.
On Tuesday, Division of Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch said the levels "can inform local response efforts when making decisions about prevention methods to reduce COVID-19 impact in their communities." However, she said state health officials are still evaluating the data and are working with federal partners to make the information more accessible to the public.
Deputy state epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner said the CDC uses a "web-scraping" method to determine levels that pull from state and local dashboard data. She added that while state officials trust the CDC analysis, they believe it could improve the process.
The CDC levels determine what areas present the most significant risk of getting sick with coronavirus based on:
- New COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 population in the past week
- The percentage of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients
- The total new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the past week
Currently, the CDC levels indicate that 11 Idaho counties have a high level of risk — including several in the Treasure and Magic Valleys.
"Some communities in Idaho continue to have high rates of illness and hospitalizations, and we really need to pay attention to those," Shaw-Tulloch said. "We need to continue in those areas to take those preventive measures, such as getting vaccinated, wearing our masks when it's appropriate and social distancing."
Health officials say they are "hopeful" that communities across Idaho will see a lower level of risk soon.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that things are better. It feels better hospitals' seamless stress cases are going down. So, it definitely feels better," Hahn said. "We still have our pockets where we need to be very cautious about what things are looking like, but I would say for me, I'm overall feeling much better."