Idaho is in a race with the delta variant, Gov. Brad Little said Tuesday.
And the vaccine gives the state its best chance at winning.
“People have to choose to do the right thing,” Little said during a virtual town hall, sponsored by AARP Idaho.
With Idaho’s coronavirus cases in the middle of a seven-week summer surge — and COVID-19 ICU admissions at their highest point in the pandemic — Little and state officials are hoping coronavirus vaccination rates also continue to trend upward.
Last week, the state administered nearly 25,000 vaccine doses, a one-week increase of 28 percent. And since Friday, a four-day period, the state has administered an additional 17,000 doses.
“That’s actually what we need right now, to bring this current spike under control,” Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Little called the vaccines a linchpin to keeping schools in session this fall, and protecting children who cannot get the vaccine themselves. And because of the vaccine — and the coverage it provides, especially to older Idahoans — Little said he sees no reason to again impose state restrictions on businesses or public gatherings.
But the sense of urgency was evident Tuesday, as Little, Jeppesen and state epidemiologist Christine Hahn fielded questions from AARP members.
The AARP town halls were a staple during the first 14 months of the pandemic. Little participated in 36 such events, but none since May 5. “Things changed,” Little said ruefully.
Callers came from across the state and from across the ideological spectrum.
One Idaho Falls caller asked if the vaccines could alter her DNA; Hahn said the RNA-based vaccines are short-lived and posed no threats to DNA.
A caller from Kamiah, citing reports to the federal government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, chastised state officials for advocating a vaccine that, she said, has killed thousands of people. Hahn said the VAERS data has been widely misinterpreted; reports to the site do not equate to deaths or complications caused by COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s simply not the case,” she said.
Two other women — who both said they were fully vaccinated — shared a different perspective. One, from St. Maries, said she has contracted COVID-19 and is in quarantine, blaming unmasked residents for allowing the disease to spread. A caller from Blackfoot talked about going to a restaurant in Idaho Falls for a Sunday brunch — and being the only masked person in the establishment.
“Everywhere I go in town, no one’s wearing masks anymore,” said the caller, exhorting Little to impose a mask mandate.
Little, who has resisted mask requirements through the duration of the pandemic, again deferred to businesses and local government and school entities Tuesday. At least 12 school districts and charters have imposed mask requirements for the start of fall classes, according to Idaho Education News research.
Money for K-12 coronavirus testing could be available soon
The state has the go-ahead to move $30 million of federal aid into K-12 testing in schools — and the money could start flowing shortly.
The Department of Health and Welfare is working on a registration process for the voluntary program, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the department’s public health division. Division of Public Health.
The department hopes to begin registration within the next couple of weeks, Shaw-Tulloch said during a Tuesday afternoon media briefing.
When the state starts distributing the money, public and private schools will have plenty of options for spending it. They could spend it on diagnostics or test kits, hiring a testing coordinator or support staff, or hiring a contractor to take on the testing.
“The choice of how they want they to implement these funds is entirely theirs,” Shaw-Tulloch said Tuesday.
Last week, the state reported 522 coronavirus cases involving 5- to 17-year-olds, a 26 percent weekly increase. Health officials are concerned these numbers could continue to rise as schools reopen.
Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.