Red Cross plasma donation

Red Cross staff member Nylah White prepares to collect a blood donation from Linda Kienstra at a drive at the Anheuser-Busch Tour Center in April.

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Continuing with fact-checking efforts, Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board invited doctors to speak out during a “myth-busting” session at the board’s Thursday morning meeting.

Health district Director Geri Rackow leveled with board members: Finding the truth is hard.

“How do we know what to believe?” she asked. “Conflicting messages that have come from the top level. From the president, from the CDC, from the World Health Organization, right down to the local level. There’s been mixed messages throughout this pandemic. The fact of the matter is we’re dealing with a situation that is new to everyone and certainly, things change over time.”

Dr. Barbara Nelson, the board’s sole voting doctor, mentioned that recommendations changed. First, “reserve masks for the healthcare workers.” Now, evidence indicates, and experts urge, that masks are crucial to slowing the virus’s spread, in conjunction with efforts like distancing and cleaning.

“Some people in the public focus on old news. But you can’t really do that,” she said. A novel virus means people learn more as time passes. “You have to stay current.”

But what’s still not known? Long-term effects of the virus, though some evidence suggests it can permanently damage the heart.

Looking at COVID-19 in binary terms — living or dying — denies the disease’s destructive nature, said Dr. Steven Lofgran, of Madison Memorial Hospital.

“There’s a sizeable group of people in the middle who can no longer take a flight of stairs or walk 200 feet because of the heart damage from COVID,” he said. “And it’s important that we emphasize to people that there are some long-term ramifications that we’re just learning about from this disease.”

The pandemic news, this week, in eastern Idaho:

1. Testing expansion spurs optimism

Last week marked another in which eastern Idaho had the highest rate of coronavirus tests that returned positive among Idaho’s seven health districts, according to state tracking.

Eastern Idaho Public Health had a 12.4% positivity rate between Sept. 13 and Sept. 19, the latest date for which state data is available. Southeastern Idaho’s health district came in a close second with an 11.1% positivity rate.

Since mid-July, eastern Idaho’s coronavirus test positivity rate has been 10% or higher. This month marked some improvement here — the rate dropped from 13.5% in the last week of August to around 12% now — but it is still far above the 5% benchmark that national experts say indicates most virus cases are being reported.

Health officials are encouraged by expanded testing in the region, including a drive-thru clinic on Brigham Young University-Idaho’s Rexburg campus, more rapid antigen tests and new equipment that can process hundreds of highly-accurate tests each day.

“All of that is going to help us going forward to be able to increase our testing capacity. As we sit here today, we still don’t have the availability to test every single person that would want to test. It generally is still fairly limited to people that are symptomatic, but we do anticipate that capacity increasing very soon,” health district Director Geri Rackow said at Thursday’s meeting.

The average number of days coronavirus tests take to return results to Eastern Idaho Public Health improved from three days about two weeks ago to around two days last week.

“If we can isolate individuals who might be feeling ill and their close contacts, we can help reduce that spread in a lot greater efficiency,” said health district epidemiologist James Corbett.

2. New cases mount amid school re-opening

Madison County continues to be the region’s hotspot. Two weeks ago, the Post Register spoke to residents about the virus, life and school. As of Friday morning, Madison had added the third most new cases in the past week, per capita, compared to other counties.

On Thursday, all counties in eastern Idaho, individually, had more than 10 active cases per 10,000 residents. Since early August, the health district’s aggregate case rate has also been above that metric. When more populous counties have been above that threshold for three days, or at the so-called moderate risk level, the regional health board has mandated masks there.

The region also hit a new cumulative first last week. On Wednesday and Thursday, eastern Idaho’s aggregate active case rate was above 20 active cases per 10,000 residents. Only once before had the region breached that level, on Sept. 20.

“We have seen cases increase in our health district,” Rackow said at Thursday’s meeting. “... Certainly we’re seeing the impact of school being back in session and teachers, staff and students being affected by COVID-19.”

The health board hasn’t been clear on regional action, saying in late August that a mask mandate and a hard ban on gatherings of more than 50 people could come at 50 active cases per 10,000 people, at the so-called high-risk level. The regional pandemic plan says regional action could come at moderate risk, but the board hasn’t clarified when it would consider such action.

In total, just shy of 4,500 eastern Idahoans have contracted coronavirus since March, as of Friday; nearly 200 have been hospitalized with COVID-19; and 23 have died.

3. Outbreak update

A state report released Friday showed little growth in new cases of the virus outbreaks in sixteen eastern Idaho long-term care facilities. Three more cases were reported, and another person linked to a facility died from COVID-19, putting COVID-19’s death toll in eastern Idaho facilities at seven and the total case count at 124.

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 256 of Idaho’s more than 450 deaths tied to COVID-19, as of Friday. The report says long-term care centers are linked with 2,628 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.

At least seven facility outbreaks in eastern Idaho are active, accounting for 76 total cases. Nine outbreaks that were linked with 48 cases are resolved, meaning no cases were reported in the past 28 days.

4. Plasma donor sites expandRed Cross announced Wednesday that whole blood donations at any blood drive or donation center can be used to extract convalescent plasma, a serum that some hope can help people at high risk for COVID-19 complications fend off the worst effects.

“Donations that come back positive for COVID-19 antibodies now undergo secondary testing to confirm antibody results,” Dr. Erin Goodhue, executive medical director at Red Cross Biomedical Services, said in a news release.

Limited data suggest the treatment can reduce mortality in high-risk patients, but robust data aren’t available yet to support claims that it reduces mortality.

In early September, the Post Register reported that Idaho Falls Community Hospital was offering the treatment months before the Food and Drug Administration granted it emergency use authorization in late August. Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center had not treated COVID-19 patients with the serum. Hospital spokeswoman Coleen Nieman told the Post Register on Friday that “We are still awaiting randomized controlled trials to be completed as the open label data published was not definitive.”

Red Cross says it will donate a $1,000 Amazon gift card to five people who donate in October; find more info here: People who donate in September, the non-profit says, will get a coupon for a free haircut at participating Sports Clips Haircuts locations; find more info here:

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.