Despite some recent improvement in Idaho’s fight against COVID-19, children appear to be at increased risk of contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus, leaders of the state’s main health systems told reporters during a press conference earlier this week.

“We’re seeing some early, encouraging signs,” St. Luke’s Health System President and CEO Chris Roth said. However, with schools going back in session, “We need to continue to be vigilant going forward.”

On the bright side, Roth said his health system has seen a 50 percent decline in hospitalization rates for COVID-related complications since July. St. Luke’s has also seen the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive cut in half during the same timeframe, he said. To Roth, those data points indicate that “the three Ws”—washing your hands, wearing a mask and watching distances between yourself and others—are working.

St. Alphonsus Health System President and CEO Odette Bolano had grimmer numbers to report. As of Tuesday, 19 people were in the Intensive Care Unit of a St. Al’s hospital due to COVID-related complications.

“That is a significant number,” Bolano said.

Meanwhile, pediatric cases appear to be spiking. Nine percent of Idahoans who have been or are currently infected with COVID-19 are children, Bolano said, citing the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. St. Luke’s saw an 80 percent increase in pediatric COVID cases in the last two weeks of July, according to St. Luke’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jim Souza. There is also growing concern that children may carry a higher viral load than adults, making them more likely to spread the virus to others.  

Those data points—wrapped as they are in uncertainty surrounding the novel virus—are particularly troubling heading into the fall, Primary Health Medical Group CEO Dr. David Peterman said. Health officials know what measures can mitigate the spread of other contagious viruses, like Hepatitis or pertussis, also known as whooping cough, Peterman said, but clear guidelines for how to protect against COVID are still being developed.

“With coronavirus, as it relates to children and schools, we do not have clear guidelines,” Peterman said.

 Without clarity about what the novel virus is capable of, Peterman said he felt it was unfair that school boards are responsible for making decisions on how to protect students.

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that a community should be able to open up again when that rate falls below 5 percent, Peterman told reporters. Positivity rates for children under the age of 18 in Idaho continue to be high, between 10 to 12 percent, since June 1. From June 1 through Thursday, children aged of 5 to 12 had an average of 10 percent positive COVID testing rate, double what the CDC recommends when considering reopening.

“Those are very concerning rates,” Peterman said.

Peterman said he and his peers are deeply concerned over whether or not schools have the resources to safely reopen. Those resources include not only personal protection equipment (PPE) for teachers and administrators, but also strict enforcement of the school’s plan throughout the network of students, parents, teachers and administrators.  

“You can’t have a plan that you give to your teachers and expect them to just implement it,” Souza said, imploring Idahoans not to “back off when we’re starting to win in this battle.”

“Every level of school leadership, from the board to the administrators to the teachers to the students and beyond to their parents, has to execute these elements of the plan consistently in order to achieve that flawless execution,” he said.

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