Idaho Gov. Brad Little holds a press conference at Nampa High School on Thursday, Aug. 12. (Kelcie Moseley-Morris/Idaho Capital Sun)

NAMPA - Amid a surge of cases of COVID-19 across Idaho and school starting in some districts next week, Gov. Brad Little held a press conference Thursday to urge Idahoans to get vaccinated so students can attend school in person this year. 

Little is also making $30 million in federal stimulus dollars available to school districts to step up coronavirus testing efforts come fall. The federal dollars are from a segment of funding that was authorized by the Legislature in 2020 to be used for general purposes statewide in addressing COVID, Little said. While he said he would have preferred the money came from American Rescue Plan Act relief funds, the Legislature rejected that $40 million in funding during the 2021 session over concerns of more data collection on students and a low priority. 

Little stressed the best protection for Idahoans from the coronavirus is to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“We want people to choose to do the right thing, and that’s the strategy we have, we’re going to continue with it — but that’s why we asked you all to be here today, was to make the point that this is very, very serious,” Little said.

Epidemiologists in Idaho say with low vaccination rates and the delta variant circulating in local communities, projections show case counts could exceed last year’s daily peak as soon as two months from today. 

Since Jan. 1, 98.9% of new COVID cases were among the unvaccinated, and 98.7% of deaths since then were unvaccinated people. According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, about 47% of Idahoans 12 and older have been vaccinated against the virus. 

COVID-19 cases have spiked across Idaho 

Cases of COVID-19 have increased dramatically since early July. Public health officials believe, based on laboratory testing, that the state’s fourth surge of coronavirus is due to the delta variant.

Statewide, cases rose to an average of 30 cases per 100,000 people on Aug. 6, the highest level of infection since January. In the five days since, the numbers have declined slightly, driven by a decline in cases in densely populated Ada County.

Canyon County’s disease prevalence, however, is about 20% higher than the statewide average and shows no sign of abating.

The statewide test positivity rate is now above 10% for the first time since January. A rate above 5% indicates that a virus is spreading uncontrollably, with cases going undetected and unreported.

Hospitals’ ICU beds have been filling up and emergency rooms are busy. That’s not entirely due to COVID-19, but the disease adds extra stress to hospital capacity. Patients in the ICU with COVID-19 are now at their highest level since the winter surge. There were 89 such patients in Idaho ICUs on Aug. 9 — up from 20 one month before.

Idaho hospitals are beginning to pause non-emergency surgeries and procedures that require an overnight stay. St. Luke’s Health System this week announced a temporary pause at its hospitals, as did Kootenai Health in North Idaho.

As Idaho enters its fourth surge, however, more people are electing to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

As of Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said there have been 206,523 total cases of COVID-19 (including 736 new in the state on Wednesday) and 2,236 deaths to date (including 10 new on Wednesday).

This story is republished with permission from Idaho Capital Sun, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Contact Editor Christine Lords for questions: [email protected]