Boise-area public health braces for ‘highest infection rates of the entire pandemic’

New cases of COVID-19 have multiplied by about 700% in the past couple of weeks.

By: - January 7, 2022 12:43 pm
Central District Health sign

Central District Health offices, in West Boise, are the public health headquarters for Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

UPDATE: The Idaho Division of Public Health on Friday added a note to the official Idaho COVID-19 dashboard. It reads: “Data for the most recent 2-week period are incomplete. Due to the recent surge in cases, approximately 8,000 outstanding positive laboratory results are pending local public health district review and follow up.”

Looking at the official Idaho COVID-19 dashboard, it would appear that cases of COVID-19 in Ada County peaked on New Year’s Eve. That couldn’t be further from the truth, according to the regional public health department. The problem is just that: cases are on such a steep rise, public health workers can’t get them reported fast enough.

Central District Health last month received about 700 to 800 new COVID-19 cases per week, for the counties in its jurisdiction — Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties.

This week, it has received more than 6,000 new lab test results — about a sevenfold increase in just a couple of weeks. About 90% of the lab tests coming into the health department are new COVID-19 cases or reinfections.

Chart: A backlog of COVID-19 test results in Idaho's most populous area is likely the main reason for what appears to be a slowdown of new COVID-19 cases.
A backlog of COVID-19 test results in Idaho’s most populous area is likely the main reason for what appears to be a slowdown of new COVID-19 cases. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

“Based on clinical and wastewater sequencing samples, the majority of those positive cases are the omicron variant,” CDH’s Communicable Disease Control Manager Lindsay Haskell said in an email to the Idaho Capital Sun. “We anticipate seeing the highest infection rates of the entire pandemic starting in the coming weeks.”

Public health teams review each case report, before sending on the data to the state.

In an ideal scenario, each of those positive tests would be a new “case” for public health workers to “investigate” — meaning, they would contact the person infected to gather information from them. Then, contact tracing teams would reach out to other Idahoans who may have been infected by that person, urging them to quarantine and/or get a COVID-19 test.

Our dedicated epidemiology staff at CDH are making every effort to get the case counts up to date for our jurisdiction, though with omicron continuing to surge, it is admittedly a daunting task at the moment.

– Rachel Garceau, public information officer for Central District Health, on Jan. 7, 2022

That’s not possible when a manageable stream of COVID-19 cases suddenly turns into a flood.

While Central District Health (CDH) has not changed the frequency of its COVID-19 case count reporting, there has been a backlog of cases developing since the end of 2021 and into the first week of 2022,” said Rachel Garceau, public information officer for CDH, in an email to the Sun.

The department added a disclaimer about the backlogs to its COVID-19 data page, she noted.

“With the rising number of tests being done here in Idaho and nationwide as omicron surges, it is taking longer for people to get their test results back, which means COVID labs also develop a backlog,” Garceau said. “CDH urges people to continue to mask up when in crowded public places, to get vaccinated and boosted when eligible, and stay home when ill.”

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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.