With 14,800 unprocessed positive cases, Idaho’s numbers artificially low

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Idaho’s official coronavirus case numbers are currently artificially low, as public health districts scramble to work through a backlog of 14,800 positive laboratory results. Though a lower percentage of COVID patients are currently hospitalized than at other points in the pandemic, a slight increase in hospitalizations coupled with healthcare workers getting sick is once again straining Idaho’s hospitals. 

During a Tuesday media briefing, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare deputy epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner said public health district investigators have been overwhelmed with the number of positive tests since late December.

Before officially submitting those cases to the state for inclusion in the IDHW tally, investigators must first verify the patient’s residence in Idaho, and attempt to contact them to ask about the circumstances of their illness, including vaccination status and severity of their symptoms.

Some health districts are having to process as many as 3,000 positive tests a day, Turner said.

“It is exceedingly difficult to turn those investigations around within 24 hours,” Turner said. “For that reason, we are publishing the number of pending lab results to provide some context to our incidence data that are summarized on our dashboard.” 

Turner said the Treasure Valley is experiencing an especially high number of unprocessed cases because of the high population.

The number of processed cases show a 7 day incidence rate of 48.24 cases per 100,000 people, Turner said. But with the unprocessed cases, that rate jumps to an estimated 135.51 per 100,000.

Courtesy IDHW

“This would represent one of the highest seven-day average incidence rates we have seen over the course of the pandemic,” Turner said. 

The news comes days after IDHW reported the largest single-week increase in the state’s test positivity rate, from 8.6 percent the last week of December to 17 percent.

While Idaho hasn’t yet seen a commensurate surge in hospitalizations, both deaths and hospitalizations tend to lag 10 to 14 days behind increases in case counts, Turner said. 

“We could start to see the impact of those high infection rates on our hospital capacity within the coming days,” Turner said. 

IDHW Director Dave Jeppesen said it’s possible the state will have to roll back to crisis standards of care, in part due to the number of healthcare workers who are out sick due to the omicron variant. 

Currently, hospitals haven’t officially canceled or rescheduled non-emergent procedures, as they did in late summer at the beginning of the Delta surge, but some healthcare systems are actively discussing that option, Jeppesen said.

The strain is showing in other ways. Saint Alphonsus is temporarily closing three urgent care facilities over the weekend due to staffing challenges, and is shortening evening hours at other clinics to allow staff to catch up on work. Both Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s are reporting test positivity rates of about 30 percent.

The Idaho Capital Sun has more on how the current surge is affecting hospital capacity.

Note: This story was updated at 5:30 pm to reflect the latest numbers. When the story was published at 4:45 pm, the backlog was 13,000 positive lab results. That number has now risen to 14,800.

<strong>Melissa Davlin</strong> | Lead Producer
Melissa Davlin | Lead Producer

Melissa Davlin is the lead producer and host of Idaho Reports. She has covered the Idaho Legislature since 2012. She also produces for Outdoor Idaho and Idaho Public Television. She has won multiple awards for her work, including a regional Emmy for her documentary on Chinese immigration in Idaho, Idaho Press Club broadcast reporter of the year for 2015 and 2019, the Idaho Press Club First Amendment Award, and the 2019 Boise State University Enhancing Public Discourse award. She lives in Boise with her husband and two children. 

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