To understand why COVID-19 cases are rising in Idaho, you don’t have to look far.
In fact, some experts say, just look at our neighbors to the south: Utah.
Cases started rising there weeks ago. Utah’s seven-day rolling average more than doubled last month alone, rising from 206 on June 3 to 425 on July 3.
On Wednesday, Utah’s daily case rate rose to 633. Officials say the more infectious delta variant accounts for more than 80% of cases there as of two weeks ago, according to the Associated Press. About 63% of eligible Utah residents are at least partially vaccinated.
“We are in a very similar place to where we were last summer,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Delta is the dominant virus strain nationwide. Cases are rising across the country. Delta is 50% more contagious than the alpha variant, explains the Washington Post. The alpha variant, first found in the U.K., is 50% more contagious than the predominant strain of the virus that circulated for much of last year.
In Idaho — where 49% of the eligible population is vaccinated — coronavirus cases have also barreled upward after months of consistent declines.
While some experts worry that the delta variant is fueling the spread, Idaho’s limited virus variant testing can’t determine exactly how widespread the strain is. But a new batch of tests this week tripled the number of delta variant cases identified, which is now 30.
Three Idaho doctors told the Post Register this week that delta is probably fueling Idaho’s surge as well.
“I think it almost certainly is,” Dr. Kenneth Krell, an intensivist at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. “There’s no reason to think we’re any different from the rest of the country,” including Utah.
Dr. David Pate, former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System and COVID-19 adviser to Gov. Brad Little, said he also thinks delta is playing a role.
“Given that alpha was our prior dominant strain becoming so in Idaho at the end of March/beginning of April, it seems unlikely that alpha would be causing this new surge unless behaviors just recently changed — but they haven’t — school’s out for some time now, mask mandates ended some time ago.”
Idaho’s seven-day rolling case average has more than doubled this month alone, rising from about 70 at the start of July to almost 190 on Thursday. That’s the highest daily case rate Idaho has seen since May 2.
In eastern Idaho, daily case averages have had a fivefold increase this month — from 4 to 20 by Thursday. Daily case averages have quadrupled this month in southeastern Idaho, rising from 4 to 16.
Near Boise, Central District Health’s weekly case counts have nearly tripled from 109 in late June. Cases in Southwest District Health, which includes Nampa, rose from 52 in mid-June to 101 the week of July 11 and 77 the week of July 18, which was the latest data available Friday afternoon.
Officials say getting fully vaccinated still offers incredible levels of protection against the delta variant. Contracting the coronavirus after being fully vaccinated is extremely rare, but it is expected to happen among a small portion of the vaccinated population because the vaccine doesn’t offer 100% protection.
“This really has become a pandemic for those who are unvaccinated,” said Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen.
Delta has not been identified in residents of the eight counties that lie in Eastern Idaho Public Health. Those include Bonneville, Clark, Custer, Fremont, Jefferson, Lemhi, Madison and Teton. But officials in Bannock County, home to Pocatello which is about 50 miles away from Idaho Falls, announced Friday that they had found at least one case caused by delta.
Testing virus test samples for mutations is an arduous process. It requires special laboratory capabilities that Idaho only acquired earlier this year. Before that, the state-run lab relied on other labs to sequence coronavirus test samples.
Sequencing can only be done on the highly accurate PCR tests that take more time than rapid antigen tests, said Dr. Richard Nathan, an infectious disease specialist in Idaho Falls. That rules out many tests. Idaho Bureau of Labs Director Christopher Ball recently said the state lab would only accept high-quality PCR tests.
And all the data is delayed by two weeks, Pate and Nathan said. That’s because sequencing takes time.
To be sure, Idaho’s capacity to sequence coronavirus test samples has expanded greatly. But not to the point that results are displayed publicly showing what proportion of cases a certain strain is causing. That kind of data could offer answers to how quickly strains are growing in prevalence. Ball said he and others have been working on that for weeks. On Tuesday, he said to “look for changes in the near future.”
In both Wyoming and Utah, delta accounts for more than 80% of cases, Nathan said. He said that spells trouble to unvaccinated people.
“Almost certainly everyone who hasn’t been vaccinated will get COVID at some point. There’s no avoiding it. It’s just so transmissible and it’s so prevalent in our community and in the country that you can’t avoid coming into contact with the virus,” Nathan said.
In many ways, COVID-19 trends in Idaho and Utah have mirrored each other. Utah has had a higher infection rate for much of the pandemic. But the states’ peaks and valleys often aligned, the Post Register found in an analysis of coronavirus case data.
There were many points when the neighbor states’ infection rates did not match up. But both of their fall spikes started around the same time — in September — and ended around the same time — in January and February.
Pate said now is the time to start planning for the school year. It’ll likely be months before all school-aged children can be vaccinated against COVID-19. When they come back to school this fall, he said there should be a focus on “good ventilation, good distancing and good masking” for the first semester.
“If we can have masks for the first half of the year. We can decrease COVID,” common cold viruses and the flu, Pate said.
Pate said general mask mandates aren’t necessary yet. Krell agrees. Pate recommends masking for people vulnerable to COVID-19 complications and their household members.
For now, the true prevalence of delta in Idaho is unknown. But to Pate, it’s only a matter of time until delta takes over.
“I think that the best step is just you have to presume that it’s out there,” he said. “You have to presume that people you’re coming into contact with will have it. I think there’s little question that by the time your schools open, it will be the predominant strain in Idaho.”