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Delta variant surging in largely unvaccinated North Idaho

The delta variant of the coronavirus is ripping through North Idaho and other parts of the Inland Northwest, and virus case counts and hospitalizations are surging as a result.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have more than doubled in the past month in the Inland Northwest, including in the Idaho Panhandle.

On July 7, 15 Panhandle residents were hospitalized with the virus. Now that number stands at 40. The majority of these patients are being treated at Kootenai Health, the largest hospital of Idaho’s five northern counties.

As of Tuesday morning, there are 37 patients being treated for COVID-19 at Kootenai Health, and 20 of them require critical care.

Dr. Robert Scoggins, the medical director of the Critical Care Unit at Kootenai Health, expects the number of COVID patients to increase in the coming weeks.

This is, in part, due to the delta variant’s rapid spread throughout Idaho. Scoggins said vaccination rates are not high enough to prevent the coming surge.

“I think it will be very hard for people to escape being infected with this (variant), and the best way to avoid getting sick is to get the vaccine,” he said.

Just 41% of Panhandle residents eligible, those who are 12 and older, have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The patients coming to Scoggins’ critical care unit are sicker and younger than the patients he was treating a year ago, he said.

Scoggins said the majority of patients in the critical care unit are unvaccinated, and they range in age from their 30s to 60s.

“One of them, his quote to me was, ‘If I’d known it would be this bad, I would have been vaccinated,’ ” Scoggins said. “He was very sick and called his family and told them he was going to die. I don’t think he will, but he was very, very sick.”

The delta variant transmits easier from person to person, and patients regardless of vaccination status can carry a more substantial viral load than those infected with other variants.

This means that people are getting sicker more quickly and also can transmit the virus to more people than with previous variants. Scoggins has noticed the difference in calls to his patients’ families.

“It’s amazing how the whole family is infected – we didn’t see that before,” he said. “We’d see several members of the family get infected, but not the stories we’re hearing now of everybody showing up to the family gathering getting infected.”

Kootenai County has the highest number of cases reported this week of all the counties in Idaho. Idaho health officials worry that the delta variant’s rapid spread in the state could lead to an swift increase in cases in the coming weeks.

In some parts of Idaho, vaccine uptake has increased, at least in part due to the delta variant’s spread, but in the Panhandle so far, the health district has not seen a bump in people seeking vaccinations.

Scoggins as well as state health officials encouraged residents who haven’t yet to get vaccinated.

“I’m concerned about all large gatherings where people are not masked,” Scoggins said. “Outdoors is better than indoors, but with the transmissibility of this variant I’d still have concerns, and I do have concerns about the schools starting.”

Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist in Idaho, said the number of cases in children, including children 4 and under, have doubled in the past two weeks, which is concerning to health officials since young people, while not at the highest risk for complications, could transmit the virus to others who are more vulnerable.

Unlike in Washington state, where Gov. Jay Inslee recently ordered children to wear masks in school, whether students will be required to wear masks this fall is up to local school districts and school boards. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all students, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in school this fall. The rise in cases is concerning to Idaho state health officials ahead of students returning to classrooms, potentially maskless.

“We’re concerned about that mainly because that population is not vaccinated and cannot be vaccinated,” Turner said.

Across the state line, case counts and hospitalizations have escalated as well.

Even with a slightly higher vaccination rate, hospitalizations in Spokane have doubled in the past month, and capacity is tight. Scoggins said Kootenai Health had to transfer patients as far as Seattle recently.

In Washington, in just one week, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased by 20%, with more than 600 people hospitalized with the virus statewide.

In Spokane County, 1,023 overall cases were confirmed in the past week alone, and the county’s positivity rate is up to 14.5% from 9% last week. The Panhandle Health District has confirmed nearly 500 cases in the past week.

While breakthrough cases are possible, vaccines are so far effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death from the delta variant.

“Vaccines are safe; they are effective,” Scoggins said. “I think everybody wants to say it’s a personal choice, but it’s also an obligation you have to the community to protect those around you.”

Here’s a look at local numbersThe Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 451 new cases on Tuesday. This is reflective of a slight backlog from just the past week of case counts, but more important, an indicator that virus transmission is increasing and concerning locally.

The district also confirmed one additional death, bringing the total number of deaths in Spokane County residents to 686.

There are 80 patients hospitalized in Spokane hospitals. This figure might be indicative of a slight data backlog from the past week, but is currently accurate at representing how COVID hospitalizations have increased in the past month.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 68 new COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths.

So far, 333 Panhandle residents have died from the virus.

There are 40 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.