The omicron variant is blazing through Idaho communities, with state health data showing the highest case and positive test numbers for the entire pandemic.
Since last Friday, the state recorded the highest number of cases in a weeklong period since the pandemic began, according to Idaho Statesman research, with 16,422 added to the state dashboard. And even that figure is likely well below the actual number, because local public health districts are struggling with a backlog of more than 35,000 tests over the last two-week period.
Another indicator, the test positivity rate, has gone off the charts. On Thursday, the Department of Health and Welfare had to adjust its online graph in order to fit in the new data point: a test positivity rate of 34.1% for the week of Jan. 9, the most recent data available.
Prior to the omicron surge, the highest test positivity rate the state had seen was 19.1% for the week of Nov. 15, 2020.
“Extremely high, unprecedented community spread,” Dr. Ted Epperly, president and CEO of the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho, told the Idaho Statesman by phone.
Public health officials say a test positivity rate of 5% or less indicates that spread of a respiratory virus is under control. The state’s rate is seven times that.
“It’s the most dangerous time we’ve had,” Epperly said.
Even though most individuals are developing less severe COVID-19 symptoms with the omicron variant — especially vaccinated people getting breakthrough cases — the enhanced transmissibility trumps that, potentially causing the virus to seep into more places and infect vulnerable people.
“It will find those people that are unvaccinated,” Epperly said. “It will find those people that are elderly, it will find those people that are immune-compromised … At its peak, it will leave in its wake a huger impact than did delta on hospitalizations and on death.”
Epperly said he expects the statistics to exceed numbers seen during the delta surge last fall, which included the deadliest weeks of the pandemic. Hospitalizations and deaths lag case counts, meaning the effects of the current spike likely won’t be visible until mid- or late February, he said.
A crisis for health care systems
While hospitals and primary care providers are being inundated by patients looking for tests and medical evaluation, more and more staff members are calling out sick, causing a “double whammy,” Epperly said.
On Friday, 51 staff members at Primary Health Medical Group, a major provider in the Treasure Valley, were out for COVID-19-related reasons, said Dr. David Peterman, the group’s CEO. Since Jan. 3, more than one-sixth of the company’s employees have tested positive.
Out of 21 in the Treasure Valley, six of Primary Health’s urgent care clinics were closed Friday.
Since Jan. 14, Primary Health’s patient test positivity rate has been 42%. The provider’s clinics have identified more than 10,000 positive patients since Jan. 3, Peterman said.
Every 48 hours, Peterman’s clinics record between 1,000 and 1,800 positive cases, he said. Primary Health administers rapid and PCR tests; if, after being screened, patients have few or no symptoms, many take a rapid test, which provides fast results. But those tests are less sensitive, Peterman said, and may give false negative readings on up to 10% of tests.
Other Idaho providers are also seeing highly elevated numbers this month. At St. Luke’s Health System, the 14-day test positivity rate as of Jan. 20 was 33%, according to the system’s dashboard. At Saint Alphonsus Health System, it was 42.7%.
“Omicron is serious, and it’s like a wildfire,” Peterman said.
As of Jan. 19, there were 491 patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 at Idaho hospitals, according to state data, up more than 100 from last week. There were 91 COVID-19 patients in intensive care. Since last Friday, the state has recorded 53 deaths, for a total of 4,323.
There’s been a total of 356,111 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
At long-term care facilities, nearly 2,300 new cases have been recorded in the past week, and 49 new facilities have active infections.
As of Friday, Health and Welfare reported 8,677 active coronavirus cases among 155 long-term care facilities. There are 201 facilities with resolved outbreaks.
To date, 1,029 people from 222 facilities in Idaho have died from COVID-19-related causes — four more than were reported last Friday. Long-term care deaths account for about 24% of the 4,323 in the state.