‘It’s literally a race now:’ Idaho pushes to curb COVID-19 before winter sets in

This is where the pandemic forecast intersects with the weather forecast.

After surging for weeks, Idaho’s latest and deadliest coronavirus outbreak is showing some possible signs of slowing. But as cooler fall temperatures set in, driving Idahoans back indoors, Gov. Brad Little says it’s critical to get the coronavirus under control before winter.

“It’s literally a race now,” Little said during an AARP Idaho virtual town hall meeting Tuesday.

Some of the numbers are improving, although they remain perilously high.

Case numbers are inconclusive, partly because health officials are still winnowing down a large backlog of reports. But new cases involving school-aged children appear to be slowing — receding back to levels not seen since the end of summer break. Smaller percentages of coronavirus tests are coming back positive, another encouraging sign.

But deaths remain high. Vaccinations remain slow. And while hospitalizations have fallen off from their peak of a month ago, the situation remains precarious.

“The hospitals are still well beyond their capacity,” Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Tuesday.

The next few weeks could be crucial — especially for schools trying to keep their doors open for face-to-face instruction — because of the seasonal nature of the coronavirus. The virus tends to spread more readily when temperatures get cooler, and people spend more time indoors. Holiday travel and holiday gatherings only complicate the matter.

The state’s track record backs this up. Idaho logged more than 11,000 new cases in one week in mid-December 2020 — and this remains a pandemic peak, even as the more contagious delta variant now circulates through the state.

Another spike remains possible, state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said during a Health and Welfare media briefing Tuesday. Even if the vaccines soon become available to 5- to 11-year-olds — and a federal Food and Drug Administration panel endorsed the proposal Tuesday — it will still take time to get kids vaccinated. Many children won’t get the shot, while many adults will remain unvaccinated.

And 19 months in, the coronavirus remains unpredictable, unlike viruses such as seasonal flu.

“The waves haven’t fallen into a pattern yet,” Hahn said. “We really just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

While several of the nation’s coronavirus hotspots are in northern states, from New England through the Dakotas and through the Northwest, that’s not solely a function of climate.

“The biggest problem for Alaska and the Mountain West is probably not the weather; it’s the vaccine skepticism,” David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote Tuesday. “Idaho is the nation’s least vaccinated state, and several other Western states are only slightly ahead of it.”

So Little and Health and Welfare officials spent much of their time Tuesday talking up the vaccines — including the booster doses that are now available, and the Pfizer vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. The state is gearing up for the child vaccine rollout, Hahn said, ordering 44,700 pediatric doses. An additional 12,000 doses will go directly to pharmacies.

The state’s messaging hasn’t changed, as state leaders tout the vaccine’s effectiveness.

The numbers haven’t changed much either. Jeppesen recited the latest statistics Tuesday: since May 15, unvaccinated Idahoans account for 86% of coronavirus cases, 89% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, 92% of ICU admissions and 86% of COVID-19 deaths.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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