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Health officials point to delta variant for big reason why COVID-19 cases are rising in Idaho

Department of Health and Welfare officials along with Idaho Gov. Brad Little expressed concern about the delta variant as kids get ready to head back to school.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho health officials and Gov. Brad Little expressed concern on Tuesday about the rising number of COVID-19 delta variants in the state. The latest figures posted to the Idaho coronavirus dashboard on Monday showed 553 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 over the weekend.  Those numbers have been trending upward in recent weeks.

"With the new school year upon us we should renew our commitment to our students," Little said. "Simply put, we need more Idahoans to choose to receive the vaccine if our kids have chance at a normal school year. One that is entirely in-person without outbreaks and quarantines."

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen confirmed the delta variant is now the dominant one in Idaho. He says there's been an increase in COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care units. The number of patients at these facilities has doubled since July 1. 

"The delta variant is here and it is moving the numbers the wrong way," he said.

Jeppesen said there is some good news to report. Vaccination rates in Idaho are starting to increase. More than 50% of Idahoans age 12 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. He urged people to get the vaccine saying "it is the way we will bring this pandemic to an end."

Deputy state epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner said the delta variant of the virus is much more transmissible than other variants we have seen in Idaho.

"Recent studies of outbreaks of people who have been infected with the delta variant have indicated that when that person is infected they will, in turn, infect somewhere between five and nine people," Turner said. 

She said that means this variant is twice as contagious as variants that have circulated recently. 

There is some good news, however. Turner said the vaccines that have been approved for use in the U.S. do provide protection against this variant.  As for breakthrough cases, Turner said people who are vaccinated are much less likely to get severely ill or require hospitalization if they do get the virus.

Dr. Turner was asked if there has been an uptick in pediatric hospitalizations from COVID-19.  That's not happening here, she said, but there are more COVID-19 cases among the younger populations. There's been increases in all age groups, 0-4 years, 5-12 years and 13-17 years. Turner said the state is seeing a larger increase in the number of people infected with the virus in younger populations.

Jeppesen said the CDC recommends students in grades K-12 wear a mask in school. One of the main reasons is that children ages 0-12 are still not eligible to get the vaccine. He says it will be up to local school boards to determine if masks will be required in school. The state is working to provide them with some additional guidance.

"We actually have convened a Back to School Task Force that will be issuing some recommendations here in the next couple of weeks to hopefully give some guidance to those school districts and school boards as they consider how they want to approach this fall," Jeppesen said.

He said they are concerned because the infection case rates among younger Idahoans is rising as we get closer to the start of school.