masks

Commissioner Byron Reed addresses board members about masks during a Board of Health meeting at the Eastern Idaho Public Health building on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Eastern Idaho Public Health officials bristled at the suggestion of more coronavirus restrictions Friday, backing vaccines as crucial while a statewide surge threatens to send Idaho hospitals into a resource crisis.

“Activities are going to continue. Schools have to continue. We cannot put the children through what they went through last year. … Our lives are going to move forward,” Board Chairman Bryon Reed said.

Reed said “we have the vaccine” and “it’s working,” but “all we need is for a greater percentage to receive that.”

“That’s what needs to be done. And it troubles me that we’re not already doing it,” Reed said.

The regional health board did not close schools or shut down businesses during the pandemic. Stay-home orders came from the governor. The regional health board issued, lifted and re-issued mask mandates and event restrictions in eight mostly rural counties in eastern Idaho depending on infection rates.

At the regional health board’s last meeting, in early June, members voted to retire a tiered pandemic response plan that guided their coronavirus responses for the eight-county region that once became home to two national COVID-19 hotspots: Idaho Falls and Rexburg.

Coronavirus case rates have declined significantly from the peaks of region’s surges. The plan became mostly symbolic in early March, when the Eastern Idaho Public Health board voted to stop routinely issuing mask mandates and to end existing ones.

Across Idaho, cases have soared recently. But the rise has not been even. Eastern Idaho Public Health public health researcher James Corbett said that eastern Idaho has had a much milder surge. In fact, eastern Idaho’s rate of coronavirus spread is about half as high as the state and nation, when averaged and adjusted for population, according to data analysis of the Post Register.

Corbett said he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that eastern Idaho is seeing slow spread months after its monumental surge in March and April. But he said he isn’t sure how the surge will play out.

“If this continues to increase on the same trajectory, and then we have the delta variant … it could be detrimental to the hospital capacity,” Corbett said. “I’m hoping, it’s my great hope, that we actually see a leveling off,” which has happened in eastern Idaho recently.

State officials believe 90% of Idaho’s current COVID-19 cases are the delta variant, said Dr. Christine Hahn, the state’s top public health researcher. She told eastern Idaho officials that the surge is coming earlier than officials expected, and that more children are being hospitalized with the virus than before.

And she said she’s worried there will be “more transmission heading into the fall.”

State health officials warned Tuesday that some hospitals may soon need to ration scarce and potentially life-saving treatment due to a rapid rise of COVID-19 patients.

“It feels like last year we had more people masking. We had more orders in place to do so, and there were closures and that type of thing,” Hahn said.

Officials have repeatedly said that the vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people. Local data confirm that.

Unvaccinated eastern Idahoans are more than four times more likely to be hospitalized if they contract COVID-19, health district data show. Only 1.2% of vaccinated residents who become infected are hospitalized, compared to 5.3% of unvaccinated residents who contract the virus, the data show.

“It’s crystal clear that the vaccine is providing a great amount of protection,” Reed said.

A group of hospital disaster planners met Thursday to discuss procedures, Hahn told the regional health board.

Hospitals in the region are increasingly stressed. In the second week of August, intensive care units in Idaho Falls hospitals were 77% full, according to federal data previously analyzed by the Post Register.

Idaho Falls Community Hospital accepted transfer patients from Washington state and northern and southern Idaho because there was no closer hospital that could accept them, said COO Casey Jackman. He said that included COVID-19 patients and nonviral patients.

“A lot of hospitals north and west of us are experiencing such an influx of patients that they’re at capacity and they’re having to ship us patients. Unfortunately they’re having to go as far as Idaho Falls to find a hospital that has capacity to take those patients in,” he said. And his hospital is at 90% staffing capacity, he said.

Jackman, speaking on behalf of the three hospitals in Eastern Idaho Public Health District that have ICUs, said Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center was “near capacity with trauma patients” and COVID-19. In Rexburg, Madison Memorial Hospital is “continuing to face staffing issues that limit their ability to bring on additional patients and consequently, we have received … some of the patients from Madison,” Jackman said.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.