St. Alphonsus, Nampa ICU

Medications and equipment hang in the ICU room of a COVID-19 patient at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Nampa on Sept. 16.

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Officials are not sure whether Idaho’s delta-fueled COVID-19 surge is over yet.

But it’s increasingly clear that COVID-19 is here to stay, an administrator of one of Idaho’s largest health care systems said at a Tuesday news conference.

“For the first time in three months, we’ve finally seen a small decline in COVID spread in our communities. This is not universal across Idaho,” said Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer of Saint Alphonsus Health System. “And while we are seeing this and it creates significant hope that we may have finally reached a peak, there is no guarantee that we’ve reached that point yet.”

Nemerson said the health care system continues to see a rise in intensive care unit admissions and deaths, “the vast majority of these as we all know are entirely preventable if only patients would become vaccinated.” State data between May 15 to Oct. 9 showed 88% of cases, 90% of hospitalizations, 92% of ICU admissions and 87% of deaths due to COVID-19 were among unvaccinated people.

“Sadly, today I’m here to tell you that we’ve lost the war,” Nemerson said. “COVID is here to stay.”

The concept of endemic COVID-19 isn’t new. Many national health experts said months ago that the infectious disease was likely to become “endemic” and linger around, effectively saying that society would need to learn to live with COVID-19.

Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. State data shows 53% of Idahoans age 12 and up are fully vaccinated, compared to 66% nationally.

Idaho’s official COVID-19 case count has declined, but official infection rates are likely undercounted. State officials are awaiting local review of 8,600 positive coronavirus test results, according to the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard.

By Sunday, the state had added 1,187 new cases each day over the past week, on average, according to the Post Register’s analysis of state health data. No state COVID-19 data was reported Monday; offices were closed to observe Columbus Day.

Hospitalization figures have steadily declined lately, after a monthslong surge that continually set new records. Idaho hospitals were treating 709 patients on Oct. 6, the latest day for which data is available. On that same day, 176 patients were being treated in the ICU. Hospitalizations were down 5% and ICU admissions were down 6% compared to figures from a week earlier in late September.

Dr. Kathryn Turner, one of Idaho’s top public health researchers, said one of the best ways to determine levels of COVID-19 spread is by monitoring the percent of coronavirus tests that return positive. That rate has declined for three consecutive weeks, she notes. If it falls for one more week, Turner said she’ll take that as a positive sign.

“I think if I see a decline in the percent positivity again this week, I think we’ll lean more towards we’re optimistic. It’s hard to go week to week to determine a trend, but I think four weeks would indicate to us that we may be on the downside,” Turner said.

Idaho’s latest percent test positivity rate was 14.6% during the week ending Oct. 2. That is nearly three times as high as the 5% benchmark rate that signals the virus is being adequately tested.

Idaho hospitals remain under Crisis Standards of Care. The statewide declaration allows hospitals to use a state plan that gives legal and ethical guidance for how to provide treatment when too many people are in need.

It’s unclear how many Idaho hospitals have used the plan. The state does not keep track of those figures, said Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen.

About 84% of ICU beds in the state were occupied on Tuesday, according to federal hospital data. That’s down from Oct. 5, when 91% of ICU beds were full. Roughly 56% of all patients in Idaho ICU beds have COVID-19. Less than three in 10 (29%) of all patients hospitalized in Idaho have COVID-19.

Infections and deaths have grown in Idaho long-term care facilities, according to the Post Register’s tracking of weekly reports. On Friday, Idaho reported a weekly sum of 279 cases and 13 deaths — both are the highest those figures have been for months. But deaths do not appear to be at similarly high levels, compared to previous weeks of high case counts.

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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