Idaho is better prepared for a COVID wave. Here’s how to get tests, treatment and boosters.

Idahoans have tools and protection as BA.2 omicron subvariant spreads

By: - April 7, 2022 4:37 am
Aerial photo of the City of Boise's Lander Street wastewater facility

The Lander Street Wastewater Treatment Facility is one of Boise’s two wastewater facilities. Samples of wastewater can show whether the coronavirus is circulating, giving an early warning that a surge in new cases is on the horizon. (Courtesy of the city of Boise)

A more transmissible variant of the coronavirus is spreading in Idaho, and all over the world. But this time, more than two years of experience and research have given us tools to fight it.

There is disagreement among scientists about the likely impacts of the BA.2 omicron subvariant in places where most people have some immunity — whether from vaccines or prior infections.

Idaho’s new COVID-19 cases are all omicron at this point. The state doesn’t differentiate between omicron BA.1 and omicron BA.2 in its coronavirus data dashboard, but BA.2 is now the dominant coronavirus in the Northwest region that includes Idaho, as well as nationally.

One thing is clear: Idaho has resources to deal with COVID-19. Some resources are limited. Some are plentiful. Here’s what to know about them, and where to find them.

The ultimate coronavirus hack: getting vaccinated

Breakthrough cases happen — people can still be infected by the coronavirus despite being vaccinated. It’s just like the annual flu shot, in that sense. But with a COVID-19 vaccine, you’re less likely to get infected and much, much less likely to be hospitalized or killed.

Go to vaccines.gov/search to find your nearest vaccination site.

At this point, a huge segment of Idaho’s population has already been infected. In the early weeks of omicron’s spread in Idaho in January, about 47% of Idahoans were estimated to have at least some antibodies from prior or current infection, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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CDC data from blood donations estimates that about 94% of Idahoans age 16 and up had some detectable antibodies in their blood, either from vaccination or infection, as of December. 

But recovering from an earlier variant doesn’t necessarily protect a person from the variants circulating now or in the future. And subsequent infections can be more severe. Visit healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/covid-19-vaccination to learn more about COVID-19 vaccines.

Federal authorities have authorized and recommended a second booster shot for certain people. (Anyone age 12 and up can receive a first booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine.) CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently told NBC News that a second booster isn’t necessary for everyone, at this point. In particular, people who recovered from recent omicron infections likely had their immunity boosted by the coronavirus itself, she said.

About 54% of Idahoans age 5 and up are fully vaccinated, according to state vaccine data. (That does not include a booster dose.) The national average is about 70% of people age 5 and up.

Need a COVID-19 test? You can DIY, or get a lab test for more accuracy

Tests that go through a laboratory process to find traces of the virus are more accurate than at-home rapid tests. Both kinds of tests are readily available.

The do-it-yourself option:

  • Through the U.S. Postal Service, you can receive up to eight free tests per household. Go to special.usps.com/testkits to order your tests, at no cost. They will be delivered to your address by mail.
  • Pharmacies and retailers now stock a variety of COVID-19 rapid tests. New federal rules say health insurers must cover the costs of up to eight over-the-counter tests per month, per person. Getting reimbursed isn’t necessarily simple, though; your insurer can require documentation and paperwork.
  • Don’t have health insurance? As part of the federal plan for COVID-19 response, community health and rural health clinics receive a supply of self-test kits for distribution to people who are uninsured, and may be at higher risk. Go to findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov to find your nearest clinic.
  • If you have Medicare or Medicaid, you qualify for a certain number of free tests per month. For example, Idaho Medicaid will pay for up to 12 tests per month, per person.

The laboratory option:

  • Do not go to hospitals or emergency rooms solely to get a COVID-19 test.
  • Urgent care clinics, such as Primary Health Medical Group, continue to offer lab tests, which are more accurate than home test kits.
  • Look up a testing site near you. Your health insurance company’s website might have a directory. The company Castlight Health offers an easy-to-use coronavirus test search engine:

At high risk of severe COVID-19? There’s a preventive drug

Certain high-risk people age 12 and older can receive a medication that is authorized for pre-exposure protection against COVID-19.

The medication is called Evusheld. It is a combination of two long-acting monoclonal antibodies, tixagevimab and cilgavimab. It is generally intended for people who can’t take a vaccine for medical reasons or whose immune systems aren’t likely to mount an adequate response to COVID-19 vaccines.

Monoclonal antibody treatments — which were created to help patients recover from COVID-19 — are no longer believed to be effective against new variants. However, Evusheld is different; it can prevent infection by giving patients the protective antibodies their own bodies cannot produce, according to drug maker AstraZeneca.

Tests and treatments were free. Now, you might have to pay.

The U.S. Congress is in negotiations over funding for coronavirus tests and treatments. During the past two years, federal funds reimbursed health care providers and pharmacies for patients who were uninsured. That removed the cost barrier for people in need of tests and treatment.

But funding cuts now would mean some people who need COVID-19 testing or treatment may have to pay out of pocket.

If you have health insurance, ask your plan administrator or call the phone number on your insurance card to find out if you’ll have a copayment.

If you don’t have health insurance, visit hhs.gov/coronavirus/covid-19-care-uninsured-individuals for guidance on what to do if you need COVID-19 health care.

You’re sick, and your COVID-19 test is positive. Now what?

There are a few options for treatment. They’re meant for people at high risk of severe illness.

While monoclonal antibodies that were useful last year don’t seem to work against BA.2, the recently authorized monoclonal Bebtelovimab has shown evidence that it works. Monoclonals must be given within the first few days of illness, and they must be prescribed and administered by a health care provider.

But there are now oral antiviral drugs authorized for use as an early treatment for COVID-19 — the drugs Paxlovid and Lagevrio (molnupiravir).

Go to covid-19-therapeutics-locator-dhhs.hub.arcgis.com to see the approximate supply of drugs near you. (Data may be inaccurate or slow to update.)

The medications aren’t available over the counter, though — they have to be prescribed, and they’re most effective shortly after you develop symptoms.

Because of limited supply, health care providers are expected to limit their use to people at high risk of severe illness.

What if COVID-19 symptoms don’t go away?

Most people will survive the coronavirus disease. Most survivors will have a full recovery.

But many Idahoans will have long-term issues — chronic illness or a post-viral syndrome, dubbed “long COVID.” People in the latter category who become “long haulers” may need to seek specialized health care.

The options for treatment vary depending on where you live and what health care providers you have available to you. St. Luke’s Health System operates a COVID-19 clinic in Boise that offers care for patients with long COVID. Go to stlukesonline.org for details.

In addition, hundreds of Idahoans have found support groups on social media. Visit healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/covid-19-long-hauler for links to several online support groups, and other resources for COVID-19 long haulers.

Canary in the coal mine? No, it’s coronavirus in the poop water

Trying to get ahead of a COVID-19 surge in your community, or in a place you plan to visit?

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Laboratories test samples of wastewater to give cities and states an early warning system for COVID-19 surges. The amount of coronavirus “shed” in human waste can vary based on many factors — but when the concentration of virus in municipal sewage goes up, it usually means the area is about to see a rise in positive COVID-19 tests.

The CDC maintains a national map at covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker using data from states and municipalities. It includes two wastewater testing sites in Ada County and one in Latah County.

State and local governments have their own data, too.

Go to cityofboise.org to see the wastewater data for Boise. As of Monday, the numbers were at their lowest since last summer.

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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.

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