Idaho officials sounded the alarm Tuesday about rising COVID-19 infections in children.
One of Idaho's top public health researchers, Dr. Kathryn Turner, said pediatric infections have "skyrocketed," surpassing a record set in December 2020. In the last week of August, 1,300 cases were reported among children. Last week, nearly 1,700 child COVID-19 cases were reported in Idaho, she said.
"Weekly case counts among children are increasing more rapidly than our case counts among adults," said Turner, who encouraged parents to get their children aged 12 and up vaccinated, keep children home when sick and encourage behaviors such as masking and social distancing.
The concerns over child infections come as the state is still under Crisis Standards of Care, a plan that guides hospitals on how to provide care when there are too many people who need treatment.
The surge has resulted in more kids sick in the hospital with COVID-19, Turner said. More than 200 Idaho children have had to be hospitalized for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, she said, while 31 children have developed a rare but severe post-infection complication called MIS-C (Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children).
"With MIS-C, different organs in the body become inflamed, including vital organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain," Turner said at a news conference Tuesday. "And not only are they hospitalized, they require care in the intensive care unit. So while it's true that severe disease is rare, the risk is not zero and it's important to reduce the risk of transmission to children or among children."
Idaho Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch, who said she has read the names on every COVID-19 death certificate since the start of the pandemic, said she worries about reading one made for a child.
Nampa School District Superintendent Paula Kellerer said 15% of school districts in southwest Idaho's Superintendent Region 3 closed a school temporarily to maintain operations. She said 95% of school districts in the region are experiencing similar struggles as when Nampa schools couldn't find enough substitute teachers to cover the elementary school.
By last Wednesday, at least 20 Idaho school districts and charters had mandated masks, according to Idaho Education News. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released three studies that found "school districts without a universal masking policy in place were more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks," according to a news release.
In Idaho, about 52% of residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 65% nationwide. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Idaho has the third-lowest vaccination rate in all 50 states.
The state's seven-day rolling average case rate reached 1,259 on Monday, which aligns with transmission rates seen late last December, when a surge of infections began tapering off.
Turner said a new state model forecasts that the state's COVID-19 cases could peak in mid-November at upwards of 20,000 cases a week, and then a peak of 1,900 hospitalizations and 305 deaths in a single week in late November.
"But what we're hoping will happen is that our curve will flatten out, like we're seeing in other states, if we can all do the right thing and get those case counts down and we won't see that sort of peak in mid-November," Turner said. "We may still hit a peak in November, but it would be a lower number of cases.
About 90% of staffed intensive care unit beds are full throughout the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. On Friday, Idaho hospitals were treating 774 COVID-19 patients, state health department data show. There were 206 COVID-19 patients in Idaho ICUs on Friday. Hospitalization and ICU admission records have been continually set lately.
"The number of COVID-19 patients continues to exceed the health care resources available," said Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen, who urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor places.
Health officials have asked people to avoid activities that could result in hospitalization but said people in need of treatment should still seek care.
In the week ending Sept. 18, the percent of coronavirus tests in Idaho that returned positive dropped slightly to 16.4%. That means more than one in every 10 Idahoans who got a COVID-19 test actually had the infectious disease. The week prior, 17.4% of tests returned positive. When more than 5% of tests return positive, the virus is considered to be spreading out of control.