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Modeling from the University of Idaho estimates about one in 30 eastern Idahoans have COVID-19 and are actively spreading the virus, a figure that displays the magnitude of the region’s mounting caseload.

“With respect to the state, that’s about as bad as (it) gets,” Ben Ridenhour, a mathematics professor who helps manage the model, told the Post Register via text message on Monday.

The model’s latest estimates on Oct. 17 say transmission rates are slightly higher in southcentral Idaho, where Twin Falls is located. But, Ridenhour said, eastern Idaho is “a hotspot.”

The analysis includes coronavirus case counts up until Saturday night. Eastern Idaho added 557 cases, combined, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Eastern Idaho’s status as a hotspot is not new.

Regional officials called the trend of new cases “concerning” a few weeks ago, when the Eastern Idaho Public Health board voted to not pursue more coronavirus restrictions until the virus’s spread reaches critical levels. Since then, the virus’s spread in eastern Idaho has metastasized, regularly setting new pandemic highs, making high hospitalization rates the norm, and prompting hospitals to renew pleas that people abide by public health guidelines as their resources continue to be stretched thin.

”Hospitals throughout the region are experiencing the highest number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 ever seen throughout the pandemic,” a group of 14 larger and rural hospitals across southeastern and eastern Idaho wrote in a joint news release last week. “This is placing a significant strain on hospital resources.”October has brought a total of 2,687 new virus cases in eastern Idaho, as of Sunday night. That total number of new cases in just 18 days surpasses case totals for every month of the pandemic here thus far. Previously, the region had added the most cases in September, with 2,244.

The four eastern Idaho counties making the biggest dent in the state’s caseload, relative to the counties’ population, are Madison, Lemhi, Fremont and Bonneville.

Madison County has seen its caseload skyrocket over the past month and a half. Rexburg, where thousands of college students returned to classrooms for Brigham Young University-Idaho’s re-opening in early September, has been listed as a national hotspot by the New York Times for weeks now.

About two weeks ago, a record 36 virus patients from eastern Idaho were hospitalized on one day. That number has remained roughly the same since then. But it only includes people who live nearby, not including the patients from outside the region that hospitals treat.

“COVID wards are pretty much filled or near capacity,” said Dr. Martha Buitrago, a local infectious disease doctor who works with Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello. She said that both bed capacity and staff resources are in short supply. Buitrago also noted that “having more COVID patients means less ability to take care of other patients.”

Hospital administrators have said that patient counts aren’t a reliable metric to gauge health care capacity. Staff counts are more accurate, the hospital administrators said, but tracking that is more difficult than tracking how many beds are in use.

Daily new case counts in the region have largely hovered around the mid to high hundreds this month. The continuation of those counts have pushed the daily seven-day case averages up, the Post Register’s virus tracking shows. And the high new case counts have pushed the region, for more than a week, past the threshold of 30 active cases per 10,000 people to be considered at high-risk for coronavirus spread.

If the regional health board moved eastern Idaho to high-risk, it would largely be a symbolic move that indicates the virus’s spread is incredibly high. On Oct. 8, Madison County became the first to be considered high-risk.

The Eastern Idaho Public Health board made sweeping changes to its plan on Oct. 8, which the Post Register summarized in an Oct. 10 article.

The health district has not publicly released the plan. Spokeswoman Mimi Taylor told the Post Register via text message Monday afternoon that the plan is “not ready yet.”

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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