COVID-19 risk-level guidance offered by Southeastern Idaho Public Health’s online, color-coded map had become tough to fathom in recent weeks.
Though the coronavirus has spread alarmingly fast throughout the region recently, the district’s eight counties all remained green on the map, reflecting a minimal risk of transmission.
Officials say that map was outdated, prompting the district’s board of directors to eliminate it on Monday because of the confusion it caused. SIPH now refers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s risk-level map, which ominously colors the region only orange and red.
In the orange counties — Bingham and Caribou — the CDC considers the risk of transmission to be substantial. Bannock, Power, Bear Lake, Butte, Oneida and Franklin counties are all red, which is the highest risk level.
SIPH Director Maggie Mann explained the district’s regional response plan and risk levels stayed green because they hadn’t been updated since the board last met on July 1, which was before COVID-19 began its dramatic resurgence.
Mann said the board developed the regional response plan and risk levels in conjunction with Eastern Idaho Public Health in the summer of 2020. EIPH — prior to removing its own risk-level map and switching to the CDC guidance in June — had used its local assessment to base certain policy mandates, such as its former public face-covering requirement.
Mann said SIPH made recommendations based on its local risk map but opted against using it for justifying mandates.
The SIPH risk-level map has been removed from the district’s website and replaced with an explanation for the change, as well as a link to the CDC guidance.
“There’s been some confusion around the different risk-level models coming from different places,” Mann said. “We decided to minimize that and just go with CDC risk levels.”
The highly contagious delta variant has now emerged as the predominant COVID-19 strain in Southeast Idaho, Mann said. She advised people to continue taking precautions, such as getting vaccinated, wearing face coverings in public, washing their hands regularly and staying home when they’re sick.
“We all want to get back to normal. We just need to put those simple steps in place to ensure we can be as normal as possible,” Mann said.
Nationally, Aug. 15 ranked among the top five days since the pandemic’s start for most new COVID-19 cases, with 252,369 U.S. cases reported, according to public health data cited by the New York Times. The peak came early this year on Jan. 8, when 300,777 cases were reported nationwide.
Local transmission has also climbed. For the week of Aug. 10 through Aug. 16, SIPH reported 252 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and seven additional deaths due to the coronavirus; 59 cases were confirmed in Southeast Idaho on Monday.
During the district’s recent board meeting, Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist with the Division of Public Health, offered Idaho data supporting the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
Turner’s data shows the delta variant is 60 percent more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strain. From May 15 through June 29 Idahoans who were vaccinated and contracted COVID-19 were eight times less likely to be hospitalized. They were also six times less likely to become infected in the first place.
Turner also offered a statewide outlook of what may happen if Idahoans remain hesitant about getting the vaccine, using an ensemble model combining 13 different models into one average prediction. As of Tuesday, 47 percent of Idaho residents who are at least 12 years old had been fully vaccinated, according to public health data.
Turner predicts the combination of low vaccination rates and the highly transmissible delta variant could result in COVID-19 transmission peaking in Idaho during October, with about 30,000 new cases per week statewide.
Furthermore, she estimates by mid-October there will be about 2,500 weekly hospital admissions statewide.