St. Alphonsus, Nampa ICU

Medications and equipment hang in the ICU room of a COVID-19 patient at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Nampa on Sept. 16.

Health officials say it's too soon to know if peak has been reached

Officials are not sure whether Idaho’s delta-fueled COVID-19 surge is over.

But it’s increasingly clear that COVID-19 is here to stay, an administrator of one of Idaho’s largest health care systems said last week.

“For the first time in three months, we’ve finally seen a small decline in COVID spread in our communities. This is not universal across Idaho,” said Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer of Saint Alphonsus Health System. “And while we are seeing this and it creates significant hope that we may have finally reached a peak, there is no guarantee that we’ve reached that point yet.”

Nemerson said the health care system continues to see a rise in intensive care unit admissions and deaths, “the vast majority of these as we all know are entirely preventable if only patients would become vaccinated.” State data between May 15 to Oct. 9 showed 88 percent of cases, 90 percent of hospitalizations, 92 percent of ICU admissions and 87 percent of deaths due to COVID-19 were among unvaccinated people.

“Sadly, today I’m here to tell you that we’ve lost the war,” Nemerson said. “COVID is here to stay.”

The concept of endemic COVID-19 isn’t new. Many national health experts said months ago that the infectious disease was likely to become “endemic” and linger around, effectively saying that society would need to learn to live with COVID-19.

Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. State data shows 53 percent of Idahoans age 12 and up are fully vaccinated, compared to 66 percent nationally.

Idaho’s official COVID-19 case count has declined, but official infection rates are likely undercounted. 

Hospitalization figures have steadily declined lately, after a monthslong surge that continually set new records. Idaho hospitals were treating 709 patients on Oct. 6, the latest day for which data is available. On that same day, 176 patients were being treated in the ICU. Hospitalizations were down 5 percent and ICU admissions were down 6 percent compared to figures from a week earlier in late September.

Dr. Kathryn Turner, one of Idaho’s top public health researchers, said one of the best ways to determine levels of COVID-19 spread is by monitoring the percent of coronavirus tests that return positive. That rate has declined for three consecutive weeks, she notes. If it falls for one more week, Turner said she’ll take that as a positive sign.

Idaho hospitals remain under crisis standards of care. The statewide declaration allows hospitals to use a state plan that gives legal and ethical guidance for how to provide treatment when too many people are in need. It’s unclear how many Idaho hospitals have used the plan. The state does not keep track of those figures, said Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen.