Idaho is bracing for the likely appearance of the omicron variant, state officials said Tuesday, noting the state is well-positioned to detect its arrival but a poor vaccination rate among residents is problematic.
Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen and other officials at a news conference said there isn’t enough known about the omicron variant yet to understand possible ramifications when it reaches the state.
It’s not clear, for example, how deadly it is or how easily it can spread. It’s also not known how effective vaccines that work against other variants will work against omicron. The state has expanded monoclonal antibody treatment, but it’s not clear if that will be effective against the omicron variant.
But Jeppesen and state epidemiologist Christine Hahn said getting vaccinated or getting a booster if eligible are the best possible protection, especially because vaccines are known to work against the delta variant, the major strain infecting and killing people in the state now. Mask wearing is also recommended.
“Our challenge remains the same, which is to encourage those who haven’t been vaccinated to do so, and for those who have been vaccinated and are eligible to get their booster shot,” Jeppesen said.
“What we do have going for us is we do have very good infrastructure in monitoring our health care capacity across the state and that remains,” he said. “That will be very helpful if we do, and I’m really hoping we don’t, but if we do see another spike in cases.”
Idaho infections and deaths have been dropping across the state, and Jeppesen last week deactivated crisis guidelines for rationing care except in northern Idaho, where infections remain too high.
Idaho Bureau of Laboratories Chief Christopher Ball said he’s confident that when the omicron variant arrives, health officials will detect it.
“One of the things that is peculiar about the omicron variant is that it’s much like the alpha variant that we saw last spring in that there is a unique PCR profile for certain tests that may give us a sneak peek that it’s here,” he said.
Commonly called PCR tests, they’re a molecular test for COVID-19 that analyzes a person’s upper respiratory specimen to look for genetic material.
Idaho has one of the poorest vaccination rates in the nation. Currently, about 857,000 residents are fully vaccinated, and about 220,000 of them have received booster shots, according to state officials. About 306,000 Idaho residents have been infected with COVID-19, and nearly 4,000 have died.
Most of those dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated, state officials said. State epidemiologist Christine Hahn noted that deaths have gone up recently among relatively younger people.
“We continue to see some deaths in folks in their 90s, that kind of thing, but we’re seeing more deaths in people in their 40s and 50s,” she said. “These are in populations with lower vaccination rates.”
She said that death certificates for that group tend to show that they suffered from such things as obesity, hypertension, diabetes or lung disease, but viewed themselves as healthy enough to fight off a COVID-19 infection without the vaccine.
“I think these people don’t view themselves as high risk,” said Hahn. “I think seniors have gotten the message and they are getting vaccinated at very high rates. But I think it’s that middle-aged population that doesn’t see themselves at risk that we are really trying to get through to now and encourage them to go get vaccinated.”