Idaho’s first case confirmed

Idaho Gov. Brad Little announces the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the state during a news conference at his Statehouse office Friday in Boise. Little also declared a state of emergency Friday.

BOISE — The first case of coronavirus in Idaho was confirmed in an Ada County woman Friday.

Public health official noted that the woman, who is in her 50s, contracted the virus while attending a conference in New York City at the end of February. She was subsequently notified by the conference organizers that three other attendees had tested positive for COVID-19. After she became ill, she informed her doctor, who then had her tested.

Officials did not identify the woman by name. Given that she contracted the virus while traveling out of state, they don’t believe there’s a significant threat to people in Idaho.

“We know this wasn’t caused by community spread in Idaho,” said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator of the Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Public Health. “I realize this is scary, but the risk to the general population still remains low.”

Brandon Atkins, program manager for the Central Health District, said the woman has mild symptoms and is self-isolating at home. She’s helping officials backtrack her movements, so they can contact people she might have come into close contact with.

Although the woman flew back to Idaho and landed at the Boise airport, Atkins said other passengers likely aren’t at great risk.

“She wasn’t symptomatic when she flew back,” he said. “While the virus can spread asymptomatically (when someone doesn’t show symptoms), the risk is very low. So (the other passengers) aren’t our priority right now. We’re focusing on those she was in active proximity with while she was displaying symptoms.”

Officials were highly complimentary of the woman, saying her willingness to cooperate makes it much easier to locate others who might be at risk.

Friday’s announcement came seven weeks after the first U.S. case was confirmed in a Washington state man — and seven hours after Idaho Gov. Brad Little declared a state of emergency, citing the “imminent threat to public health and safety” stemming from the COVID-19 virus.

Although there were no known cases in Idaho at the time he signed the declaration, Little noted that Idaho is “surrounded by states experiencing the spread of coronavirus,” and it was expected to arrive here at some point.

Little characterized the emergency declaration as a proactive measure intended to keep Idaho “ahead of the curve.”

“If we don’t do all we can to control the spread, then our health care system will break down,” he said. “If too many people get sick too soon, our health care facilities won’t have the capacity to deal with it. So we’re trying to flatten out the curve by slowing the spread.”

The emergency declaration provides access to emergency funding and gives the governor greater flexibility to expedite purchasing contracts for emergency supplies. It also helps the state access critical health care supplies from the national stockpile, such as masks, gloves and ventilators, and expedites the process of reinstating retired nurses to help expand health care capacity.

Little held an hourlong news conference Friday morning to discuss the emergency declaration, as well as steps the state is taking to control the epidemic. The highlights included:

How significant could the outbreak be?

Based on the best available information, State Epidemiologist Christine Hahn estimated “15 to 35 percent” of Idahoans will become ill, or roughly 263,000 to 613,000 people.

“The number we’re mostly looking at is 15 percent, and many of those who become ill will have mild symptoms,” she said.

However, Hahn also previously indicated that COVID-19 has a mortality rate of about 1.4 percent. Even at the 15 percent infection rate, that would translate to about 6,100 deaths.

During a 5 p.m. news conference to announce the first Idaho case, Shaw-Tulloch noted that there have been 1,629 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States so far, of whom 41 have died, or 2.5 percent.

What’s happening with testing capacity?

To date, Hahn said, the state lab has been able to keep pace with testing samples as they are received.

However, hospitals and medical providers around the state were previously told that the lab has limited testing capacity. Consequently, they’ve only been sending in samples from people who are gravely ill or who have a connection with one of the virus hot spots around the world.

“We acknowledge we should be testing more,” Hahn said.

The state lab is adding equipment to expand its own testing capacity. Within the last week, three private labs have also begun testing samples.

People who don’t have any symptoms still won’t be tested, Little said, but people with a fever, cough or flu-like symptoms can be, once the flu has been ruled out.

Information about testing can be found at the state coronavirus website, https://coronavirus.idaho.gov/.

What about hospital capacity?

That’s “a big unknown,” Hahn said, largely because of the uncertainties about how many people will get sick and how fast the virus will spread.

Another unknown is whether people with COVID-19 have to be isolated. Although the virus appears to be highly contagious, “we’re learning more about it every day,” Little said.

Hahn also noted that the state has long-established procedures in place for handling mass casualty events, such as a major earthquake. Those same procedures will help guide the response to coronavirus.

Are any steps being taken to limit or ban large public gatherings?

A number of private events have voluntarily canceled or rescheduled, but the state is not mandating any closures or cancellations at this time. However, new guidelines and recommendations for event organizers have been posted online, at https://coronavirus.idaho.gov/.

What about schools?

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said at this point, any decision to close a school because of the coronavirus is being left to the local districts.

However, “we had a teleconference with superintendents (on Thursday), to make sure they’re being proactive about this,” she said. “A majority of them already have plans in place.”

Those plans include things like how to provide lessons online, or to drop off and pick up assignments for those who lack internet access. Given the importance of school meals for some low-income students, districts are also looking at opportunities to provide breakfast or lunch packets.

“We want to make sure that life goes on as normal for kids, even in the event of a massive school closure,” Ybarra said.

Barring a confirmed case of the coronavirus, she said, the Centers for Disease Control is recommending that schools remain open. Students should be reminded about good health practices, however, such as frequently washing their hands, covering their cough, not touching their face and staying home if they’re sick.

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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