COVID-19 metrics are improving. But with schools back in session, uncertainty looms

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Boise residents can keep their face masks off, for now.

COVID-19 metrics in most Idaho communities are on a downward trajectory. But with schools back in session, and low vaccination rates, it’s unclear how long that will last.

New data published by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare shows hospitalizations have gone down in many Treasure Valley counties and across Idaho.

“Hospital admissions are definitely going down over time,” Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator of the state’s Public Health Division, told the Idaho Board of Health and Welfare at a meeting Thursday. “We’re not hearing a lot from hospitals about the high numbers of cases in their hospitals.”

Ada, Canyon, Elmore and Boise counties were all listed as high risk by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 community level dashboard in late July.

Last week, those counties dropped down to medium risk, or the yellow zone, where the agency recommends immunocompromised people talk with their health care providers about whether to wear a mask and take other precautions.

Updated metrics from the CDC on Thursday reveal those Treasure Valley counties are still in the yellow zone. Here’s what the latest number say:

Case rates. Ada County’s share of people with COVID-19 fell from 158 per 100,000 people the previous week to about 143, a 9% decrease. Canyon County’s case rate fell from 145 to about 131, nearly a 10% decline.

Hospital admissions. In Ada and Canyon counties, COVID-19 hospital admissions decreased from 10 per 100,000 people to 14.1.

Hospital beds filled. Staffed inpatient beds in use by confirmed COVID-19 patients in Ada and Canyon counties decreased from 7% the previous week to 6.4%.

Some counties in Idaho aren’t making as much progress. Payette, Adams, Washington and Jerome counties, all of which were listed at medium risk last week, have moved into the high-risk category, or red zone, where the CDC suggests universal indoor masking.

Ideally, public health experts would like to see every corner of the state in the green zone, or low-risk category, indicating control of the disease’s spread.

Health and Welfare reported statewide positivity rates, or the percentage of positive test results, for COVID-19 decreased from 10.6% for the week of July 31 through Aug. 6 to 9.6% for the week of Aug. 7-13. While the decline is a small sign of improvement, Shaw-Tulloch says 9.6% is still nearly double the 5% benchmark experts hope for.

The rate is also likely higher given the use of at-home tests and the number of people not reporting their illness to authorities.

“While we are seeing these cases and positivity rates decrease, we still have a high number of cases,” Shaw-Tulloch said. “But we are seeing a nice downward trajectory, and I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and knock on wood that we continue in the same vein.”

She said one of her ongoing concerns is the lower vaccination rates among children, particularly now that school is back in session.

Vaccinations. In Idaho, just 18% of kids ages 5-11 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from Health and Welfare. The rate is 38.9% for kids ages 12-15 and 44.6% among 16-17-year-olds. For young adults ages 18-24, 52.3% are fully vaccinated for the disease.

The rates are even lower for kids who’ve gotten a booster shot.

“When you average it out across 12-17-year-olds, it’s really only about a quarter of the population that’s fully vaccinated with the booster,” Shaw-Tulloch said. “Having kiddos go back into school – we’d like to see the vaccination rates a little bit higher.”

Dr. David Pate, former CEO of Boise-based St. Luke’s Health System and a member of Gov. Brad Little’s Coronavirus Working Group, tweeted Aug. 16 that COVID-19 prevention plans at area schools are worse than at any previous point in the pandemic.

“Bracing myself for what we are going to see with infections and hospitalizations in kids when schools open,” Pate wrote.

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