Whitman County health officials are tracking a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases that have occurred over the past week, probably because of community spread.

But there is also a chance the new cases may be linked to some of the new disease variants that have been detected in the country.

Chris Skidmore, director of Whitman County Public Health, said Monday officials have not yet nailed down the cause of the increase, which has shown up mainly in Pullman, Colfax and Garfield.

“I think it has a bit to do with some COVID fatigue,” Skidmore said. “People are sick and tired of social distancing and wearing masks ... but also (people are) moving around and spreading out a little bit more rapidly. ... In terms of community spread, the biggest thing, the most common denominator, is folks getting together outside the home not in a controlled setting, (such as) Super Bowl parties, playing video games. That is where the main problem is.”

Whitman County reported 41 new positive COVID-19 test results over the weekend, all but five of which were among people 39 or younger. The county total, to date, is 3,396 with 45 total deaths. Hospitalizations, to date, are 91.

Pullman has seen a jump of 99 new cases, or a 74 percent increase, in the last 14 days. Colfax has reported 18 new positive tests, or a 14 percent increase, and Garfield has had five new cases, or a 4 percent increase.

Skidmore said that so far, none of the new variants have been identified in the new cases. But if the current COVID-19 tests do indicate a variant strain, the affected people will be contacted for a second test that would be sent to a state lab for identification.

“We are on the lookout for them (the variants), so if we see that, we’ll probably be reaching out to those folks who tested positive ... see if we can send another sample off (to the state lab),” Skidmore said.

If a new variant is detected, that could make a difference in how the person was treated, “but that main thing is, it would give us an idea on how quickly it’s moving through our population. (Some of the new variants) are virulent and transmit quickly. We’re keeping a pretty close eye on the situation so we can scale up our capacity if it looks like we’re going through another wave of COVID.”

Asotin County reported three new cases Monday, including one hospitalization. Garfield County’s case total remained unchanged at 118.

Latah County also has seen a surge in new infections since last week. There have been 118 total cases in the county since Feb. 22, out of a total of 165 in north central Idaho.

On Monday, Latah County had 33 of the 50 new cases reported by Public Health – Idaho North Central District. That’s the district’s biggest daily total since Jan. 25, when 53 new cases were reported.

Scott Schlegel, spokesman for the health district, pointed out that 16 of the new cases in Latah County are in the 18 to 29 age group. Over the past week, that is the age group where most of the cases have occurred.

Nez Perce County reported 10 new cases Monday; Idaho County had four new cases; Clearwater County had two; and Lewis County had one.

Race and ethnicity data is now available on the COVID-19 vaccine data dashboard available at coronavirus.idaho.gov. The data will be updated by 5 p.m. each day except on Sundays and holidays.

Dave Jeppesen, director of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said race and ethnicity are not mandatory for patients to report, but if the patient provides this data, it is required to be reported by enrolled COVID-19 vaccine providers. It is new for the Idaho immunization program to capture and report this data, Jeppesen added.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare will hold a media briefing about COVID-19 vaccines in the state today at 1:30 p.m. PST. Jeppesen and Christine Hahn will offer brief remarks and an update on the status of the vaccine, and then answer questions from the media, along with Sarah Leeds, who manages the state immunization program.

The general public can join the briefing as attendees in listen/watch-only mode by selecting the link: bit.ly/3bOzrZK. American Sign Language interpretation will be provided at the briefing.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little will host a statewide AARP telephone town hall today at 11 a.m. PST to provide information and answer questions regarding the virus in Idaho. Participants can join by dialing toll-free (866) 767-0637 or register in advance by visiting: vekeo.com/aarpidaho/.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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