BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little is moving the state into Stage 3 of his coronavirus reopening plan, lessening restrictions on the size of group gatherings as the rate of COVID-19 infections continues to drop statewide.
Little made the announcement Tuesday, urging residents to stay vigilant in working to slow the spread of the virus.
“When we moved back to Stage 2 in November, case counts were spiking and hospitals were bracing for the worst,” Little said in a prepared statement. “Today, thanks to our collective good efforts, those case counts are much lower and trending downward. Idaho now has one of the lowest rates of spread in the nation.”
There were just under 434 new cases for every 100,000 Idaho residents in the past two weeks, ranking the state 35th in the country for new cases per capita, according to numbers from John Hopkins University. One in every 560 people in Idaho tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week.
The number of COVID-19 patients being admitted to intensive care units for treatment remains far higher than the 25-patient-per-day average that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has said would be needed to move the state out of Stage 2.
Currently, the state has 225 people hospitalized with COVID-19 related symptoms, according to The COVID Tracker, and the state averaged about 62 ICU coronavirus patients a day in the second half of January according to the most recent state data available.
Still, Little noted that hospitalizations had been steadily declining and hospital capacity remained strong enough to justify moving forward with the reopening plan.
Dr. Christine Hahn, the state epidemiologist, said a new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 has been detected in states surrounding Idaho and will likely be detected within the state soon. Idaho doesn’t have as much testing capability as many other states, and previously hasn’t routinely tested for new COVID-19 variants, but officials are now testing for the new strains.
“We know that it is probably here,” Hahn said. “We haven’t detected it yet, but we should behave as if it’s here or on its way.”
Under Stage 3, gatherings should be limited to 50 or fewer people, instead of the previous 10-person limit. Political, religious, educational and health care related events are exempt from the size restriction, as are youth sports events as long as organizers follow guidelines set by the Idaho State Board of Education. Bars and nightclubs can continue to operate but patrons are expected to remain seated.
Masks are required at long-term care facilities, and are strongly recommended but not required elsewhere.
“We have learned a lot about COVID-19 over the past year, but one thing remains constant,” Little said. “The more people you interact with — and the longer the interaction lasts — without wearing masks, the higher your potential risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and potentially spreading it to your loved ones.”
Idaho's vaccine allotment from the federal government remains lower than that of many other states, in part because the CDC is using older census data that doesn't reflect the state's dramatic recent growth, said Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen. He said state officials were talking to the federal government in hopes that Idaho's allocation will be increased to match the current population numbers.
“We're asking that as we go forward Idaho is getting its fair share of doses,” Jeppesen said during a media briefing Tuesday.
Demand for the vaccine remains high, with more than 265,000 Idaho residents 65 and older now eligible to be vaccinated. But the state is currently only getting about 25,000 “first doses” of the two-dose vaccine a week, and some older residents spent hours on hold with vaccine providers or repeatedly tried to set up appointments online, to no avail.
“Everyone 65 and older who wants the vaccine will be able to do so,” but it will take months to get everyone fully vaccinated, Jeppesen said.
Some of Idaho's vaccine allotment was given to pharmacy companies CVS and Walgreens through a federal partnership program to vaccinate staffers at long-term care facilities and nursing homes. The pharmacies still have about 32,000 unused doses, apparently partly because demand for the vaccine among that group was lower than expected, Jeppesen said. About 12,000 of those doses are being transferred to the state's control and officials are working to get the rest of them made available for the current vaccination group, he said.
Idaho has seen 1,735 COVID-19 related deaths to date, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins. That death count is the 41st highest in the country overall and the 38th highest per capita at 98.9 deaths per 100,000 people.
Idaho has reported 162,683 positive tests out of 603,115 tests conducted since the pandemic began, giving a positivity rate of 27.0%, according to the COVID Tracking Project.