Omicron is now spreading in the Treasure Valley, lab tests indicate

Idaho doctor says the best way to keep schools open — and society functioning — is to get vaccinated, wear masks and get tested.

By: - December 21, 2021 2:54 pm
Emily, 12, gets the Pfizer vaccine from a nurse at a Primary Health Medical Group clinic in the Treasure Valley

Emily, 12, gets the Pfizer vaccine from a nurse at a Primary Health Medical Group clinic in the Treasure Valley on May 12, 2021. (Courtesy of Primary Health Medical Group)

With more than 20 clinics in the Treasure Valley, and large scale COVID-19 testing, Primary Health Medical Group has been something of a pandemic canary in the coal mine for the Boise area.

The clinic group’s CEO, Dr. David Peterman, says the past week’s pattern of test results shows that the omicron variant is now spreading in the Treasure Valley.

He’s worried that holiday gatherings will introduce a new surge of COVID-19 that could shut down schools, medical clinics and more, as happened in 2020.

Idaho’s first case of omicron, announced a week ago in the Treasure Valley, came from a lab test performed by Primary Health. The test results had a unique trait that doesn’t show up with the delta variant — a red-flag sign that the patient had omicron — and a few days later the variant was confirmed through gene sequencing, Peterman said.

In the subsequent week, Primary Health was up to nine cases of COVID-19 with the omicron trait. Then, on Monday, there were seven in one day — a small number but a rapid rate increase.

The “percentage of (results with the omicron trait) doubled in a day,” he told the Sun.

The patients run the gamut from unvaccinated to partly vaccinated to fully vaccinated with a booster; people with recent travel and people who didn’t leave town, he said.

What happens if omicron is mild, but infects frontline workers?

The fall 2020 surge, before vaccines were available, sickened teachers and health care workers who lived and worked in places with high community spread. That made it hard for schools and hospitals to function.

As large numbers of those essential workers got vaccinated in 2021, though, they were protected from severe illness even when the delta-fueled surge caused breakthrough cases. Hospitals instead struggled because of the large number of unvaccinated, severely ill patients.

This time, Peterman worries that omicron’s rapid spread could produce a high-speed version of both surges combined.

“We are in incredibly big trouble,” he said.

If the omicron variant proves mild in people with immunity, another surge may not cause massive hospitalizations, but it could affect schools, health care and other vital services if too many frontline workers catch the bug.

“Primary Health has been predictive in every surge, and I’m seeing it again,” Peterman said Tuesday. “My concern now is your child going to school, you needing to see normal health care workers (in urgent care clinics), and now that we’re going into Christmas, I want you to get vaccinated.”

Doctor: Omicron isn’t in control. We are.

Peterman recognizes that many Idahoans will not get vaccinated. For those Idahoans — and everyone, vaccinated or not — Peterman says following other public health guidelines will help.

One of the major ways to keep from spreading COVID-19 is to wear a face covering.

“What we need is people masked” when indoors, especially at gatherings, Peterman said.

For anyone with symptoms resembling a cold, flu or allergies, he said, “Get tested, so we know who has it and who doesn’t.” The same goes for anyone with a possible exposure to COVID-19,  he said.

Getting tested within the first day or two of symptoms is critical, because monoclonal antibody treatments are most effective in the early days of COVID-19.

“This is the time of year we need to care about the people we don’t know,” as well as those we do, he said.

“I’m talking about your first grader’s teacher. I’m talking about, if you have strep throat … I’m already having trouble keeping clinics open on Saturdays,” and another surge would make it harder to serve patients, Peterman said. “I’m pleading.”

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.