Rise in omicron COVID cases have state health providers worried for hospitals, schools

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Idaho health care officials are sounding alarm bells about the rapid upward trend in new COVID-19 cases, as the highly-contagious omicron variant spreads in what’s being reported around the country as a post-holiday “surge.”

Primary Health Medical Group CEO David Peterman, who oversees one of the largest health care providers in the state, told Boise-based KTVB-7 TV that with 1,000 individuals tested each day at 21 facilities in southwest Idaho, the weekly positivity rate ran to nearly 27% in the last week of December alone.

The month before, Peterman said Primary Health was seeing positivity rates in the single digits, making this the sharpest increase in new cases yet seen by the provider.

“The messaging from the CDC and on TV to the public has been that omicron seems to be less of a severe disease, less patients need to be hospitalized. While that is likely true, and I am grateful for that, the fact that this is so contagious creates many problems,” Peterman told the news station. 

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported Jan. 4 that new COVID-19 cases nationwide “reached a record-shattering average of 480,000 this week,” which is putting mounting pressure on primary care providers around the country — including in Idaho.

The AP pointed out that Primary Health in Boise took in more than 2,000 urgent care patients on Jan. 3 alone, the largest number of patients on a single day since a week before hospitals went into “standards of care” protocols in September 2021.

“We’re seeing record numbers in our clinics, and we have 38 of our employees out sick. If primary care doctors cannot see their patients for their hypertension, for sore throats, for diabetes, then we’re in trouble,” Peterman told the AP.

The Panhandle Health District reported 147 new cases on Jan. 5 with 80 patients currently hospitalized. Statewide that number was 1,441 new confirmed or probable cases on Jan. 5.

With the end of the holiday season and students returning after their winter break, Idaho health care officials are also worried that relaxed masking, social distancing and other COVID-19 mitigation policies in schools may help contribute to the current spike in cases.

According to the Idaho Statesman, few school districts around the state still maintain masking in the classroom, as vaccine rates for young people remain low: 15% for children 5-11 years old, 40% for those 12-15, and 45% for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Just as primary care providers and hospitals are fearing the effects of staff shortages from infection at the same time as demand for services is increasing, they are also worried that the post-holiday increase in cases may result in school closures.

“The history, even in our own state, of schools having to shut down because of being overwhelmed by COVID were significant in the fall,” Kenny Bramwell, system medical director for St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital in Boise, told the Statesman. “So I would expect that, sadly, to be worse now that we’re starting a new semester with a more contagious variant.”

State and local guidance for schools, as well as individuals, remains as it was before the holiday season: get vaccinated, maintain physical distance, wash hands, stay home when sick and get tested if symptoms present. However, a spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare told the Statesman that a best practice for limiting spread in schools is for teachers, staff, students and visitors to mask up at all times while indoors, regardless of vaccine status.

That’s exactly what the University of Idaho is doing, according to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, as UI President Scott Green announced Jan. 3 that mandatory masking in university offices, buildings and common areas be continued into the spring semester.

“Unfortunately, the omicron variant of COVID-19 is causing us to reevaluate how we thought we would enter the spring semester,” Green told the campus community in an email. “Because of omicron’s high transmission, we will begin the semester with the same safety protocols that were in place in the fall.”

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