COVID-19 inoculation

Danny Wilson, respiratory therapist, receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Madison Memorial Hospital in Rexburg on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

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As COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to dwindle in eastern Idaho, the regional health board canceled what would have been its first meeting in three weeks.

Less than 48 hours before Eastern Idaho Public Health board’s planned Jan. 7 meeting, the health district’s website said the meeting was re-scheduled for Jan. 14 — four weeks since the health board that is the primary venue for local COVID-19 information, including virus trends and hospital capacity, last met.

The Post Register spoke with representatives for eastern Idaho’s three largest hospitals Thursday about what they might have shared with the board.

Capacity is getting better, with about half of the region’s around four dozen ICU beds available last week — one of the lowest occupancy rates reported since August, when the health district began publishing that data. And hospitals are close to having given out the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines to all of their staff.

1. Hospitals share virus update

In the area’s largest hospital, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, “vaccine clinics are in full swing” and leaders are hopeful that declines in newly reported COVID-19 cases will continue, according to spokeswoman Coleen Niemann. About half of the 29 staffed ICU beds there were free, on average, the week ending in New Year’s.

“We are at end stages for first doses, and have begun second-dose vaccinations from employees who received their vaccine” in mid-December, Niemann said.

In Idaho Falls Community Hospital, with the next biggest ICU, things keep getting better as well. For nine days at the end of 2020, the ICU was at staffing capacity, said administrator Casey Jackman. All 10 staffed ICU beds were full the week of New Year’s. But, he wrote in an email, “we continue to have more non-covid patients on our Med/Surge Floor ... and fewer patients in the ICU.”

“We are hoping to see less of a Covid spike after Christmas and New Years than we did after Thanksgiving,” Jackman said, which left around 90% of ICU beds nearby in use. “We should have a better idea how this pans out over the next few weeks.”

In Rexburg, Madison Memorial Hospital “is staying fairly consistent” with a handful of COVID-19 patients, said spokesman Doug McBride. As of Thursday, 450 hospital employees had received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose and the hospital hopes “to finish up by mid-next week.” Last week, some staff started receiving their second dose.

Health board chairman Bryon Reed told the Post Register in a text message Friday that the planned Jan. 7 meeting was rescheduled for Jan. 14 to get more info from a state panel that met Friday afternoon to determine who should access COVID-19 vaccines next.

2: Rising cases mid-week raise questions about decline

By Wednesday, the health district began reporting over 100 cases each day. One-hundred forty-one were reported Thursday.

The rise in daily case reports follows a two-week dip after Christmas, when reporting was inconsistent due to the holidays; the region averaged about 80 cases each day during that time, a noteworthy decline from the rates of over 200 in November that had only dropped to 123 by Christmas eve.

It isn’t clear whether the dip in late December was due to less virus spread, or due to inconsistent access to testing sites and reporting.

Health district spokeswoman Mimi Taylor told the Post Register on Friday: “Cases are increasing because people have been exposed to the virus and are seeking testing.”

“Overall, people seeking testing has decreased throughout the state,” Taylor said in an email. “It is our hope that in this new year, people continue to follow best practices for slowing the spread of the virus which include, staying home when sick, washing hands frequently, maintaining space (at least 6 feet) between people, and when not able to distance, wearing a mask correctly and consistently.”

Testing stayed low, around 23,000 PCR tests being administered statewide between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2, which brought Idaho’s test positivity rate to 17.2%. During the week of Christmas, testing halved. In early November, 37,000 PCR tests were reported in a single week.

Similarly, in eastern Idaho, low PCR test reports and high positivity rates showed in the week ending on Jan. 2. About 1,550 PCR tests were run that week, compared to 1,633 the week before and 3,000 to 4,000 most weeks in October, November and December. The rate of tests that return positive also rose from 10.2% to 11.6%. It’s much lower than the high positivity rates over 20% that the region saw for the past couple months but still higher than the 5% benchmark that experts say indicates adequate virus monitoring.

On Thursday, a total of 41 eastern Idahoans were hospitalized with COVID-19 — an improvement from the peak of 64 hospitalizations on Dec. 2.

Since Christmas, Eastern Idaho Public Health has reported at least 22 deaths from COVID-19. Since Thanksgiving, 85 new virus deaths. In total, at least 182 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the eight-county health district as of Thursday.

3: Cases grew 8% in local long-term care facilities

A state report released Friday showed at least 46 new coronavirus cases and seven new deaths were reported in eastern Idaho long-term care centers last week. No facility reported a new outbreak.

At least 635 coronavirus cases and 39 deaths from COVID-19 are linked with 30 long-term care facilities in eastern Idaho.

The growth is slightly faster than during the past few weeks, but it isn’t out of the norm.

The rise in cases last week grew the region’s total caseload in long-term care facilities by 8%, compared to 2%, 4%, 4% and 11% the previous four weeks. In November, cases grew by over 10% each week.

Long-term care facilities often house people who are at high risk for severe complications from COVID-19. Statewide, long-term care centers are linked to 622 of Idaho’s over 1,500 deaths tied to COVID-19. The report says 307 long-term care facilities are linked with 8,086 cases in Idaho.

Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare says a facility has an active outbreak if there has been a confirmed or probable case among staff or residents in the past 28 days.

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.