‘Cautiously optimistic’

COVID case counts and positivity rates point to endemic shift as Idaho approaches end of emergency declaration

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

Idaho is closing in on the end of its official coronavirus pandemic emergency status, as Gov. Brad Little announced in early March that the state would cease its emergency declaration on Friday, April 15.

Little said the declaration was “an administrative function to recoup FEMA dollars for a variety of needs throughout Idaho,” but also noted that state health officials “have been closely examining the needs within Idaho’s health care system with an eye toward ending the public health emergency declaration as soon as possible.”

Idaho remains on track to end the declaration, and the situation across the state — and country — has been steadily moving toward something reminiscent of life before March 2020.

Still, Panhandle Health District spokesperson Katherine Hoyer told the Sandpoint Reader on April 4 that local health officials continue to watch the virus closely.

“We are all in a rush to get to ‘the end’ of this pandemic and move into some form of endemic phase,” Hoyer said. “I’m also eager to ‘return to normal,’ but we should be realistic about what that means. From what we know right now, COVID-19 will most likely not be eradicated in the U.S., so that means we will all need to live with it on some level for the foreseeable future. 

“The great news is that we have an effective vaccine and other non-pharmaceutical actions that we can all take to prevent COVID,” she continued, “[like] hand washing, staying home when sick, covering our coughs and sneezes, etc.”

In Idaho, 54% of the eligible population — or, those 5 years and older — have been fully vaccinated as of April 6, compared to 70% nationally. In Bonner County, that number is 41%.

North Idaho has served as a hotbed for COVID-19 due to low vaccination rates, making it a focal point for crisis care activation. However, as of April 6, Bonner General Health reported that, just as it is statewide, COVID data is improving up north.

“We continue to be at a relatively low and good spot in Bonner County,” said Erin Binnall, BGH spokesperson. “Testing has decreased significantly, and we have not had a COVID admission in the last three weeks.”

The pandemic continues to affect BGH operations, though in more subtle ways than before. Currently, Binnall said masks are still required for all staff and patients while inside hospital facilities; COVID-specific rooms are still functional and available in the emergency department, medical unit and ICU; and only symptomatic patients who are being admitted are tested for the virus. Additionally, the BGH visitor politicy now allows for two support persons for non-COVID patients in a 24-hour period, and one for those with COVID.

As for whether the panhandle should be prepared for further waves of the virus, especially in the face of the new BA.2 variant, BGH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stacey Good said people should be ready for anything.

“The past has shown us that we can never anticipate anything with this virus given its unpredictable nature,” Good said. “However, we know that our positivity rate is very low now, and the BA.2 variant has not had any major effect on our region yet.”

Hoyer said that while PHD “cannot predict the future,” the case count, positivity rate and hospitalization trends in the region “are reason to celebrate.”

“[W]e remain cautiously optimistic,” Hoyer continued. “The BA.2 subvariant has become the dominant virus strain in Washington, but it has not caused a major uptick in cases yet, so that is also a great sign. We suspect that we will always have COVID-19 floating among the population, but the hope is that it remains at a baseline level and not the drastic surges we’ve dealt with over the past two years.”

To view Idaho’s COVID-19 data, head to coronavirus.idaho.gov.

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