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COVID-19 virus SARS-COV-2 OMICRON strain, COVID-19 South African variant B.1.1.529 omicron, 3d rendering.

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On Thursday, St. Luke's and Saint Alphonsus health systems provided updates on COVID-19 activity and testing.

In a media briefing, health care leaders with two of Idaho's largest health systems — Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's — said a "fifth wave" of COVID is beginning.

The health care leaders included Dr. Laura McGeorge, St. Luke's System Medical Director, Primary Care, Dr. Kenny Bramwell, St. Luke's Children's System Medical Director, Dr. Steven Nemerson, Chief Clinical Officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System and Dr. Mark Nassir, President of Saint Alphonsus Medical Group. 

St. Luke's is seeing an exponential increase in demand for testing, McGeorge said. Over 10 percent of St. Luke's hospital volume is COVID-related, she said.

125 Saint Alphonsus employees were on COVID leave Thursday, up from the 14 on leave two weeks earlier, Nemerson said.

"The train's coming back. This is very much like the beginning of the pandemic again. And this time it's gonna flatten us, quite honestly. We need to be prepared for that," Nemerson said. "The same measures we've been talking about for a long time are going to protect us, but we recognize that some people are not going to be able to protect themselves because they're immunocompromised, or the vaccine doesn't work well in particular individuals, and also others will choose not to be protected, so we're here to serve."

Out of the 120 school districts in the state, three of them have mask requirements in place, few have masks as optional, Bramwell said.

Primary Health CEO Dr. David Peterman said to BW sister paper Idaho Press, the number of tests performed at Primary Health on Monday was the second most COVID tests administered in the company’s history. The highest total was recorded on Sept. 7, 2021 — right before Idaho went into statewide crisis standards of care. Currently, the testing positivity rate at Primary Health is nearly 27%, Peterman said.

The Omicron variant spreads more easily than other variants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When asked what masks are best worn to defend against Omicron, Nemerson recommends medical-grade masks. Due to the microscopic gaps between the threads, cloth masks don't do as good a job at stopping the tiny particles that carry the virus, he said. The recommended mask to protect oneself from Omicron is an N-95.

Data from the state's coronavirus dashboard, which is updated daily at 5 p.m. Sunday’s, says 895,763 people are fully vaccinated in Idaho and 333,701 people have received an additional booster dose. There are 323,965 cases in Idaho, with 1,441 total new cases reported Wednesday.

"This is so much more contagious than any of the other variants that we've seen that if you are around this it is very likely that you will get it," Bramwell said. "The best thing you can do is to expect that you are going to get it and to prepare as best you can. For me that includes vaccination and that's what I recommend to anyone considering it. Even now, go and start the series of vaccines to protect yourself and others around you."

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