Community Hospital COVID-19

Staff talk about a patient being treated in the intensive care unit for COVID-19 at Idaho Falls Community Hospital on Dec. 7, 2020.

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While local coronavirus infections declined and the percent of tests that return positive dropped to a 10-month low, virus-related hospitalizations have plateaued but are still high in eastern Idaho.

Local experts and hospital leaders say it’s a two-fold issue. New COVID-19 patients aren’t being admitted at high rates, but many people already ill require prolonged, intense treatment.

“Often these patients are in for the long haul,” Dr. Barbara Nelson, the sole physician who serves on the Eastern Idaho Public Health board, said at the health board’s Thursday meeting. “Many times they’re in for several weeks.”

In the past week, the region averaged less than 30 new coronavirus cases each day. That’s close to infection rates from mid-July. In October, November and December, the region added an average of more than 100 cases each day — sometimes climbing over 200. Cases mostly declined this year aside from a surge in early March that temporarily turned Idaho Falls and Rexburg into national hotspots.

Seven of eight counties in the region are considered at “minimal” risk for virus spread. If Bonneville County’s infections stay low Thursday night, health district Director Geri Rackow said all eight counties could be in the lowest risk level.

Meanwhile, health district public health researcher James Corbett said the percent of coronavirus tests that return positive for eastern Idahoans dropped to 6.5% last week. The region’s test positivity rate hasn’t been below 8% since June.

Officials are “excited for the downward trend, and we’re hopeful that will continue,” Corbett said.

Speaking on behalf of the region’s three largest hospitals, Madison Memorial Hospital CEO Rachel Gonzalez told the board hospitals aren’t seeing many new patients. Gonzalez, who runs the Rexburg hospital, said she plans to collect data on long-term COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Around three dozen eastern Idahoans were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to Eastern Idaho Public Health. That’s higher than most days in January and February, but well below the counts during the region’s fall surge.

“We really are not seeing a surge of COVID patients needing the inpatient COVID services,” she said.

The average hospitalized patient with the virus is younger than usual, Corbett said. He did not specify the new average age, but he said the change is likely because many older residents have been vaccinated. State data shows almost 73% of Idahoans age 65 and up have received at least one vaccine dose.

Long term, Gonzalez said hospital leaders are realizing that some procedures might need to stay, including health screening of visitors and wards specifically designated for COVID-19 patients.

At the two Idaho Falls hospitals with intensive care units, Gonzalez said patients there for up to a month might be transferred to long-term acute care facilities for ongoing care, including on ventilators — devices that force oxygen into lungs.

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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