Although new coronavirus cases dipped last week in eastern Idaho, health experts say the region’s coronavirus surge that propelled it to national hotspot status isn’t over.
High infection rates are still stressing local hospital intensive care units in eastern Idaho, but the rise isn’t happening as severely elsewhere in the state.
“We are already at capacity … in this community in terms of our overall bed availability, and staffing is a challenge across the board,” David Hoffenberg, administrator at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, told the Eastern Idaho Public Health board Thursday morning.
“It’s not the situation any of us would like to be in. It’s not at all where we’d hoped to be in this stage,” said Hoffenberg, who spoke on behalf of the three hospitals in eastern Idaho with ICUs. “Two months ago, we thought that we were really seeing things in a better light, but we’ve taken a turn and the hospitals are seeing that impact.”
Low demand for COVID-19 tests during spring break last week skewed down the region’s infection rates, said health district public health researcher James Corbett. This week, testing demand has rebounded, he said, which will translate into more reported infections. New cases also stem from people gathering over spring break, he said.
“I’m hopeful that (the rise in infections) doesn’t continue, that people will heed our advice,” Corbett said.
Corbett said the health board’s decision to end all existing mask mandates and to no longer issue any more “could be one reason” that cases are rising. But, he said, “the bigger reason” that contact tracers find in talking with infected people is “many people are not heeding the advice to stay home when they’re sick.”
The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates say 30% of all coronavirus infections don’t result in any symptoms. For people who do develop symptoms, about 50% of transmission to others happens before symptoms begin, the agency says.
Even when fully vaccinated, health officials suggest people still wear their masks because the vaccines greatly reduce, but not eliminate, chances of contracting COVID-19.
Two more infectious coronavirus variants — first identified in the U.K. and California, respectively — were found in eastern Idaho nearly two weeks ago, including one that is believed to be more deadly than the coronavirus strain that prevailed for much of the pandemic. The U.K. variant was also found in southeastern Idaho, officials announced Wednesday.
When asked why eastern Idaho is having such an aggressive surge while the rest of the state appears to be in a lull, Corbett said many factors are contributing.
“I don’t think we truly know,” Corbett said in response to a question from board Chairman Bryon Reed. “There are variants found in other locations, too, so I can’t just lay this at the feet of the variants. I don’t think that’s entirely true.”
Infected persons not isolating can create a snowball affect, Corbett said. If one sick person shows up to work, they could infect three coworkers. Those three coworkers could infect three more people each, causing nine new cases. Then, those nine could infect another three each — with 27 more cases.
“It exponentially grows,” Corbett said.