BOISE – Idaho’s economic rebound following a shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic is third-best in the nation based on the unemployment rate. But the tradeoff has come with the worst positive COVID-19 test rate in the country and a grim milestone: 500 dead.
And modeling by mathematicians at the University of Idaho says the approaching peak of infections and likely deaths is weeks away.
The Idaho Department of Labor said Thursday that the number of residents collecting unemployment dropped for the 22nd consecutive week, falling 8% from the previous week to 9,144.
That’s down from more than 70,000 continuing claims in late April when Republican Gov. Brad Little began reopening the state in stages following his month-long stay-at-home order after COVID-19 entered the state.
Idaho’s unemployment rate soared to more than 11% during the stay-at-home order, but with the reopening has since come down to 4.2%, third-lowest in the nation behind Utah and Nebraska.
With the reopened economy and people intermingling, virus infections and deaths have climbed. Johns Hopkins University reports that through Wednesday, Idaho had more than 45,000 infections and 500 deaths.
The COVID Tracking Project reported that the 14-day trend for the percentage of people testing positive in Idaho for COVID-19 through Wednesday was at 24.18%, worst among states.
The COVID Tracking Project double-counts some patients, but is viewed as a good tool for comparing how well states are doing. Idaho’s tracking numbers show positivity rates increasing to 9.4%. Experts say it should be below 5%.
Dr. David Peterman, a pediatrician and the CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, the largest independent medical group in Idaho, said that entity has conducted more than 40,000 tests and shows the current positivity rate increasing to about 10% over the last three weeks.
Peterman said the steady climb is probably because of a number of factors that include, besides businesses reopening, kids and college students returning to school and spreading the disease to others. He also said fatigue with mask-wearing and social distancing is probably playing a role.
“That leads to community spread, which leads to a slow increase to the positivity rate, increased admissions to hospitals, and an increased death rate,” he said.
Peterman said a statewide mask mandate is needed.
“It has clearly been shown that if you wear a mask and I wear a mask, it decreases the spread of the disease,” he said.
Neighboring Oregon, which has more than double the population of Idaho, has a statewide mask mandate and 10,000 fewer infections. The state has 583 deaths, most coming early in the pandemic. The COVID Tracking Project lists its positivity rate at 6.5%.
Ben Ridenhour, an assistant professor in the mathematics department at the University of Idaho, said modeling is not looking good for the state.
“It looks like we’re probably going to have another big wave here (toward the end of October),” said Ridenhour, whose modeling has convinced him to self-isolate at home to avoid the virus. “It could be as bad or worse than the one that happened in mid-July.”
Little wears a mask in public and encourages others to do so as well, saying it helps protect themselves and vulnerable residents. But he hasn’t issued a statewide mandate, instead leaving that up to local entities. Eleven counties and nine cities have mask mandates. Ada County has moved back into stage 3 restrictions, limiting group sizes.
Little, in his first term as governor, faces both political and economic pressures in navigating the state through the pandemic. People not having money to pay bills can also cause health and emotional problems, state officials have said. School officials have noted the importance of having schools open because, for some students, it’s the only place they get a nutritional meal.
“The question is, ‘Did you do the right thing at the right time with the information you had at that time,’ ” Little said during an early October news conference. “I hope and pray that I did.”
Peterman said a statewide mask mandate would be more effective in slowing the spread of the virus than the current patchwork system now in place.
He’s also concerned that as temperatures cool, people will move indoors and the seasonal cold and flu season will make the situation worse, putting additional pressure on the health care system as coronavirus infections rise.
“This will be very challenging for healthcare providers and the community,” Peterman said.
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