BOISE — As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, top state officials are urging Idahoans to be COVID-safe as they gather with family, and to remember Idaho’s health care workers as they give thanks.
“Remember the health care workers that are on the front line … what they, their families, their co-workers have been through,” Gov. Brad Little said during a tele-town hall with AARP Idaho on Tuesday. “I’ve been in a lot of ICU’s, and those nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists and everybody that works in those facilities has just had very challenging time.” He urged Idahoans to “think about those people that have been so important to maintaining the safety and the health of all the people of Idaho.”
Dave Jeppesen, Idaho Department of Health & Welfare director, encouraged Idahoans who’ve already been vaccinated for COVID-19 to consider getting a booster shot right away; they’re now available, as of last week, to all vaccinated Idahoans 18 and older. “Particularly through the holiday season, this is a good time to get your booster shot so you’re prepared for all those extra interactions,” Jeppesen said.
Those who had the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine can get boosters after six months; those who had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can get them after two months, he said.
Idaho’s COVID news is trending better, both Little and Jeppesen said, speaking just a day after statewide crisis standards of care were deactivated everywhere except in the five northernmost counties of the state.
“Generally, our case numbers continue to look better and better — still higher than we would like, but moving in the right direction,” Jeppesen said. “Our cases are trending down.”
He said 25 of Idaho’s 44 counties now have an incidence rate of COVID-19 below 25 per 100,000 in population, “so that’s a good thing. We had a while where every county was above that.”
Test positivity rates are in the 10th week of declining, Jeppesen reported, at 7.2%. “We’d like to be at 5, but are generally headed in the right direction,” he said.
Test positivity at 5% is considered the threshold at which an outbreak is not spreading uncontrolled in the community.
“Twenty-eight states across the country currently see a rising case rate,” Jeppesen said. “We are fortunate that we’re seeing a declining case rate, and it’s up to us to keep it that way; continue those good practices.”
Cases have even begun declining in North Idaho, he said, but every county in that region remains above the 25 per 100,000 incidence rate, and test positivity up there remains above 10%.
“The hospitals are still stretched,” Jeppesen said.
A caller from Hayden Lake questioned why the nation is seeing more deaths in 2021 than in 2020, when vaccines are now widely available.
“The short answer is the delta variant is much more virulent,” Little said.
Jeppesen said, “What we see is that the vast, vast majority of deaths come from those that are unvaccinated. … If somebody gets vaccinated, the likelihood of catching COVID goes dramatically down, and then even if that person still catches COVID,” in what’s called a “breakthrough” case, their likelihood of dying is “four times or five times less.”
“The vaccines actually are very effective at preventing death,” he said.
In response to a question about whether there’s a “government cover-up” of deaths from vaccines, Jeppesen noted that information reported in the national Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, consists of unverified self-reports. “These are not confirmed cases,” he said, and include people who died from other conditions, like cancer, but also got vaccinated against COVID-19.
“What I can tell you definitively here in Idaho is that we have had zero deaths related to vaccination,” he said.
Only six Idaho death certificates have mentioned COVID vaccination at all, Jeppesen said; four just had informational notes about the deceased person’s vaccine status, and the other two named other causes of death.
Jeppesen said the department investigates all reports of vaccines and deaths in Idaho.
When a caller asked if she brought her mother home from assisted living, if the mother would be able to get back into the facility, Jeppesen suggested working with the facility to “take appropriate precautions.” Idaho facilities are back to normal operations, he said, but they do have infection control policies, so it’s important to let them know if a resident was exposed to COVID or any other disease while out so they can take appropriate measures when the resident returns.
When a distraught mother of a veteran with COVID-19 who had been discharged from a Spokane hospital still unable to walk or speak after a stroke pleaded, “I can’t get help for this veteran who has fought for our country. I’m 78 years old, and I need help. Who do I go to?” Little and others on the call were taken aback.
“Our heart goes out to you,” Little told the woman. “We spent a lot of time during COVID making sure we had capacity in our veterans homes and for our veterans, so before this call is over, we’ll have a phone number for you to call.” Several minutes later, he supplied her with a phone number and extension to call at Idaho’s Veterans Services Division.
The mother said her daughter-in-law also is on life support for complications from COVID-19 in a Spokane hospital. “Anybody that’s listening, please, please, go get vaccinated,” she said. “And we need to take better care of our veterans.”
After another caller recited a long list of anti-vaccine claims, from charging that the vaccines aren’t really FDA approved (they are) to claiming that “natural immunity is superior to vaccine immunity” (current U.S. public health guidance says the opposite, though both together are most protective), a later caller asked why Little and Jeppesen didn’t directly challenge the claims.
Little said, “There’s no question the vaccine works. That is really indisputable.”
He said, “I guess I’m more inclined to just put out the good information, because my experience debating some of these issues has been less than fruitful going forward.”
Jeppesen recommended the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare blog, https://dhwblog.com/, at which he’s posting updates on Tuesdays and Fridays. “We use that as a place to provide accurate information,” he said, “and really information that’s relevant to misinformation that’s currently circulating.”
A caller from Meridian asked whether it was safe for vaccinated grandparents to gather for Thanksgiving with unvaccinated grandchildren.
Jeppesen responded, “Particularly if you’re vaccinated, and particularly if you’ve had a booster shot, that puts you in a very good position to enjoy the holidays.”
The full protection from a booster shot of COVID-19 vaccine occurs two weeks after it’s given, Jeppesen said, “but we know that there is some immunity that starts right away. … So I would say it’s not too late.”