BOISE — Idaho added more than 7,500 COVID-19 cases last week, the highest weekly tally since early December, as the effects of the surging virus continue to be felt throughout the state.
Already, multiple schools in Idaho have temporarily closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks among staff or students at the start of the school year, and few areas in the state are requiring masks in schools.
Snake River Elementary, in Nampa, and the Basin School District, in Idaho City, will be closed until after Labor Day, while Payette High School will be closed until Sept. 13. At Boise State University, which started classes at the end of August, there have already been 202 positive cases: 118 off-campus students, 65 residential students and 19 faculty or staff members, according to the school’s data dashboard.
Of the school’s 90 isolation beds, over 43 percent are currently occupied.
In northern Idaho, the region’s Panhandle Public Health District is so overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases that it has a backlog of around 800 cases dating from the second week of August, according to a spokesperson, Kimberly Young. Because of the backlog, the district is not able to contact those who test positive individually to give them guidance on self-isolating, as it normally does, and officials are unable to investigate each case and conduct contact tracing, she said.
“We hope to get through most of the backlog within the next two weeks,” Young said in an email to the Idaho Statesman on Friday. “However, as cases continue to rise, it will be difficult to remain current.”
Idaho hospitals are largely operating at capacity, with COVID-19 wards and intensive care units filled with mostly unvaccinated Idahoans. As of Sept. 1, there were 35 percent more patients in an intensive care unit than during the virus’s previous peak last winter.
The week of Aug. 30, Idaho added 7,648 cases, the highest weekly total since early December. The state’s test positivity rate stands at 14.2 percent for the week of Aug. 22, the most recent date available, according to data from the Department of Health and Welfare. Health experts widely consider positivity rates higher than the 5 percent benchmark an indication that a pandemic is out of control.
1,384 of this week’s cases were added on Friday, the same day that Dr. Ryan Cole, a vaccine skeptic, was confirmed to the Central District Health board by a single vote. The controversial doctor who has called vaccines “needle rape” and who has promoted treatments like ivermectin, a drug commonly used to treat livestock that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19, was appointed by the Ada County commissioners on Aug. 17. Cole needed at least five votes from the nine commissioners in Boise, Elmore and Valley counties to be confirmed. On Friday, he received the needed fifth vote, with one of the three commissioners in Elmore County voting in his favor.
Health care officials this week said cases show no sign of stopping. The chief clinical officer at Saint Alphonsus Health System, Dr. Steven Nemerson, said at a press conference Thursday that modeling shows the surge in hospitalizations will continue through the month of September.
Hospitalizations have already surpassed levels seen last winter. On Sept. 1, the most recent date available, there were 527 people hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 in the state. On Dec. 1, the previous peak, there were 496. In intensive care units, there were 165 people admitted with COVID-19 as of Sept. 1, surpassing the Dec. 18 peak of 122 by 43 patients.
“Every hospital in Idaho has some level of staffing shortage when it comes to available beds,” Toni Lawson, vice president of governmental relations at the Idaho Hospital Association, told the Idaho Statesman in an interview on Aug. 25. “Right now it’s a bit of a perfect storm. … We have seen kind of exponential growth in the number of patients needing top-level care.”
The state also added 52 deaths the week of Aug. 30. Hospital administrators at St. Luke’s, Saint Alphonsus and West Valley Medical Center said on Thursday that 95 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people, and Gov. Brad Little has said that close to 98 percent of deaths have been among unvaccinated people.
According to Health and Welfare, 49 percent of Idahoans 12 or older have been fully vaccinated.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 9,992 hospitalizations due to COVID-19, 1,661 people admitted to an intensive care unit and 11,595 healthcare workers infected.