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Idaho officials: COVID climbing too fast to timely track

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Answering the call

Health Education Specialist Cody Orchard demonstrates the procedure for a hotline call Saturday, March 21, 2020, at the South Central Public Health District in Twin Falls. The hotline numbers are 208-737-1138 and 208-737-5365 for Spanish.

BOISE — Idaho’s coronavirus cases are increasing faster than the state can track them, causing a lag in case counts that some public health leaders fear could lull residents into a false sense of security.

Deputy state epidemiologist said during a briefing Tuesday that the backlog is happening because public health agencies can’t keep up with the flood of positive COVID-19 tests. When positive tests are reported, workers at local public health agencies must verify that the person is an Idaho resident and attempt to contact them to conduct a case investigation. The local departments then submit the case investigations to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare so the numbers can be included in the state’s overall COVID-19 numbers.

But each investigation takes minutes, if not longer — and some local health districts are running 24 hours or more behind, she said. As a result, the state’s COVID-19 tracker shows an average of about 48 new cases for every 100,000 people each day over the past week. The actual numbers are closer to 135 new cases a day for every 100,000 residents, Turner said.

That higher estimate tracks with what some doctor’s offices are reporting. Primary Health Group, the state’s largest independent family medicine provider with 21 clinics in southwestern Idaho, has a positivity rate of about 34%, the company’s CEO Dr. David Peterman said Monday. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says communities should aim for a rate of less than 5%.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said anyone who has been waiting to be vaccinated or boosted against coronavirus should get the shots now.

“We think omicron is so contagious that it will be very difficult to avoid getting infected with this if you have to go to the grocery store, if you’re going to school or work,” she said. “It’s going to be very hard to avoid.”

The omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Idaho’s hospitalization rates remains well under the peak seen when the state entered crisis standards of care last fall, but Hahn said officials expect to see increasing hospitalization rates in the coming days and weeks. COVID hospitalizations typically occur 10 to 14 days after infection, she said.

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