PAYETTE COUNTY — At a press conference on Sept. 3., Gov. Brad Little announced that the state of Idaho will remain in stage 4 of its reopening plan for an additional two weeks. The average number of COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide for the seven-day period ending Sept. 1 was 11 per day, as reported on the Idaho COVID-19 website. Two weeks prior, from Aug. 12-18, the average was 14 per day. But Little said that rate needs to go down further.
“The number of overall COVID hospitalizations statewide is still too high,” said Little. “I do not classify staying in stage 4 as a failure; Statewide, our numbers and metrics are looking pretty good. In fact, even in many of the hotspots, we’re seeing encouraging trend. But that is not a reason to let our guard down.”
Little said his main concern now is the changing of seasons.
State epidemiologist Christine Barr echoed Little’s sentiment regarding hospitalization rates.
“Our case rates are declining; They have been declining for several weeks and very encouragingly, the set of tests that are done, these are PCR tests that are diagnostic tests, the percentage of tests that are positive are declining,” said Barr. “It’s not where we need to be, we’re not feeling secure and safe, and as the Governor mentioned, we know that with flu season coming, with more people coming indoors, with the Labor Day weekend approaching, we are concerned that people will be gathering together more… for now we are very encouraged by these numbers.”
Barr reported the statewide positivity rate for COVID-19 was at 8% as of Sept. 3. She noted the number of healthcare workers reported as testing positive for COVID-19 is no longer being used as a metric for determining the end of stage 4.
“We’re still collecting that data and we’re still looking at it, but we realize it’s not timely enough to be used as a decision-making metric,” said Barr. She also pointed out use of remdesivir is now approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in all COVID-19 patients as of last week.
Even once the state moves out of stage 4, Little said, guidance would remain in place for keeping healthcare workers and Idahoans in general safe.
“Even if we were out of stage 4 … there’s still things that are gonna be different than what we did in January, until either we have a vaccine or until we basically have more people protected,” said Little, indicating that data will indicate when the time is right to end stage 4.
Little also noted that all 50 states have some sort of emergency declaration in place, illustrating the need for Idaho to keep its declaration in place.
With Labor Day approaching, Barr noted that feedback from health districts continuously indicates that small gatherings are fueling the spread of COVID-19.
“Most people that get infected, it’s by someone they know well; It’s a household member, or a family member at these small gatherings,” said Barr. “I think it’s a natural tendency for many of us to say, ‘Well of course I’m not gonna go to that big rock concert and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all these strangers. But hey, the family barbecue, it’s just 10 or 12 of us, feels a lot safer.’ But you can still get infected that way and we tend to let our guard down.”
While tax revenues for 2020 have come in higher than expected, Little said, he noted that could change if precautions against COVID-19 are not still taken. Forecasting revenue shortfalls, Little held back 5% of school funding for the 2020-21 school year as one example of cuts made due to COVID-19.
“The robustness of sales tax revenues, which are an indicator of economic activity … we forecast originally, early on, that we’d have a 14% reduction in general funds coming in,” said Little. “The cash coming in is higher than we anticipated, but all the things I talked about earlier is, if we can reduce the spread. the less that damper will be out there.”
Little also acknowledged the need for continued precautions in regard to jail populations around the state.
“Prisons by their very nature deal with a lot of infections, so we had [protocols in place] to begin with,” said Little. “We’re testing people that come in, we’re isolating people that have tested positive, particularly ones that are lower risk, we’ve isolated them from the rest of the population.We’re concerned about the people that are older that have health complications, and that’s where your fatalities are gonna be.”
Over 1000 inmates and corrections staff have been infected, with two deaths reported according to the Idaho Department of Corrections website.
When asked about perceived inconsistency in school reopening approaches, Little said a number of factors play into reopening in addition to health agency alerts.
“Not only are school districts different, school buildings are different,” was one example he noted. “Some school buildings have better air filtration, air circulation, bigger spaces, different ways for people to ingress and egress … Again, a statewide solution doesn’t address the boots on the ground. It may look a little inconsistent, but the net of it is being reviewed from a public health standpoint, and a standpoint of getting kids back to school.”
As the pandemic magnifies behavioral health issues statewide, Little acknowledged there’s much to do to help those who suffer from such.
“We just put together our behavioral health counsel, at the request of the Judiciary branch,” said Little, noting that CARES Act money is being used for this purpose. “Even if the COVID virus goes away in six months, we’ve still got some behavioral health and substance abuse problems that we need to address going forward.”
And with flu season coming, Little urged Idahoans to get flu shots to keep healthcare resources available for COVID-19 patients.
“As we approach fall, the opportunity for community spread will increase; Dropping temperatures will drive people indoors where people will be sharing physical space and more transmissible moments can occur. This presents opportunities for spread and threatens our healthcare capacity, the very thing we’re trying to protect so our economic rebound can continue, so our students can learn in their classrooms as they deserve.”
However, a flu shot is not a substitute for COVID-19 precautions, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
In its frequently asked influenza questions page, the CDC says, “Getting a flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19, however flu vaccination has many other important benefits. Flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of flu illness, hospitalization and death. Getting a flu vaccine this fall will be more important than ever, not only to reduce your risk from flu but also to help conserve potentially scarce health care resources.”
Little also reminded Idahoans to continue wearing masks, maintain physical distance, avoid crowds, stay home when ill and wash hands frequently.