Community Hospital COVID-19

Community Hospital COVID-19

A staff member prepares to enter into an intensive care unit room to care of a patient with COVID-19 at Idaho Falls Community Hospital on Dec. 7, 2020.

Citing strikingly improved rates of coronavirus infection and hospitalization, eastern Idaho health officials on Thursday retired a plan that guided their coronavirus response for the eight-county region that once became home to two national hotspots.

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. Previously, the board members used the plan to justify public health restrictions like mask mandates and gathering limits. Many local schools had tied their reopening plans to the health district’s four risk levels and recommended restrictions.

All but one member of the Eastern Idaho Public Health board voted to approve the plan retirement, suggested by health district director Geri Rackow, who does not vote on the board but advises it. Local public health data on COVID-19 will remain public on Eastern Idaho Public Health’s website.

“Over a year since the pandemic started, we have vaccinations, we have therapeutics for people who have contracted (the coronavirus),” Rackow said, encouraging people to still follow “good hygiene practices” that helped to virtually eliminate the 2020-2021 flu season, such as hand washing and staying home when sick.

She said if the COVID-19 situation worsens, the board could meet again.

Dr. Barbara Nelson, the board’s only voting physician, supported retiring the plan.

“We’ve actually watched a medical miracle unfold in real time with the vaccine efforts, so the cases are going down. We still have questions in the future, like, ‘Will we need a COVID booster in the fall?’ But the rates in our population that are getting vaccinated makes it so we have no further need to keep this plan in place,” said Nelson, an OB/GYN in Idaho Falls.

Fremont County Commissioner Blair Dance, who joined the health board in January, was the only vote against the plan’s retirement. Before the vote, he pointed out that the plan says it is fluid and can be modified as needed. Keeping the plan around, he said, gives him a “degree of comfort,” and they would not have to follow it as “intently” as before.

“I for one still feel like it needs to be there,” Dance said.

Although the virus’s spread is calm now, Jefferson County Commissioner Shayne Young worried about the future of the pandemic because of dangerous mutations spreading. Rackow agreed, but said the board could devise new strategies if needed.

“You’re right. We don’t know what the future holds still. There are variants of concern,” Rackow said. The vaccines protect against currently circulating variants, but that isn’t guaranteed against new versions that could emerge. It’s also unclear if vaccinated people will need booster shots, Rackow noted. “So yeah, there certainly still are some unknowns, but again I feel like the plan has served its purpose over the past year, gave us guidance.”

Infection rates are down 88% since New Year’s Eve, dropping on Wednesday to an average of nine daily coronavirus cases — the lowest recorded infection rate in almost one year. Vaccination rates in Idaho are not as high as officials had hoped, and leaders are still hoping to reach and convince unvaccinated people. Regardless of Idaho’s comparatively smaller vaccine uptake, though, having 48.6% of adults vaccinated is a feat, said Amy Gammet, clinical services director for Eastern Idaho Public Health.

Just three eastern Idaho residents were being treated in the hospital with COVID-19 on Thursday. That number includes eastern Idahoans admitted anywhere. On May 1, eastern Idaho hospitals were treating 29 patients with COVID-19, according to health district data.

The region has not seen hospitalizations that low since June 2020, said James Corbett, health district epidemiologist. “That’s the win that we’re excited about,” he said.

Many cases likely went unreported during the early months of the pandemic, meaning infection rates now are likely significantly better than a year ago. The decline in cases mostly began in late December, following warnings about nearly overwhelmed hospitals. Cases shot up again in mid-March, making Idaho Falls and Rexburg national hotspots, before they rapidly fell again.

More than 28,000 eastern Idahoans have reportedly contracted COVID-19, almost 1,120 have been hospitalized and 262 have died.

In hospitals, COVID-19 constraints are night and day from months ago.

Rackow, who said she spoke with a representative for the region’s three hospitals with intensive care units, said two hospitals — Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, the largest, and Madison Memorial Hospital in Rexburg — were not treating any COVID-19 patients on Thursday. Idaho Falls Community Hospital, which has the second-largest ICU, was treating two COVID-19 patients, but it hadn’t had any COVID-19 patients in its ICU since May 12, Rackow said.

As summer approaches, and more people recreate and car crashes become more prevalent, hospitals enter a season busier with more trauma cases, which Rackow said is already happening. However, hospital capacity is reportedly at safe levels — with an average of 27% of all ICU beds and 44% of all hospital beds available in the region over the past three days.

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.