Virus Outbreak Idaho

A medical mask covers the face of the statue of I.B. Perrine outside the Twin Falls Visitor Center.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday announced that fully vaccinated people in coronavirus hotspots should resume wearing masks indoors in public.

The change — which came as the hyper-infectious delta variant is fueling a surge of new coronavirus cases among unvaccinated people — broke with the health agency’s guidance from two months ago that said inoculated people could ditch masks.

The new approach to masking is now piecemeal, or area by area. All people should wear masks in public indoor places in areas with substantial to high transmission, the CDC said. That’s the case in 27 of Idaho’s 44 counties, the Post Register found in a review of CDC data. Roughly 89% of Idahoans live in communities where masks should be worn again, the Post Register found.

“The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a Tuesday news conference, according to the New York Times.

More than a million Idahoans live in 13 counties that have substantial levels of community transmission, CDC data says. Over a half million people live in 14 Idaho counties at high transmission levels. Less than 5,000 Idahoans live in the three counties — Butte, Clark and Camas — that are at low community transmission levels. Almost 200,000 Idahoans live in 14 counties that have moderate transmission levels.

Ada, Bonneville and Canyon counties are under substantial levels of community transmission. Bingham, Fremont, Madison, Jefferson, Kootenai, Latah and Twin Falls counties are under high levels of community transmission.

“A month ago, we were seeing one to two cases a day and now we are seeing 25 to 30 cases a day. We are not going in the direction that we were hoping,” Southeastern Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann said in a news release. “We don’t want to see what we saw last year, and the only way to get back to normal is to follow CDC’s guidance,” which was also updated Tuesday to say that masks should be universal in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Starting Wednesday in Boise, masks will be required of anyone entering indoor city-owned facilities, including the library, City Hall, recreation facilities and office buildings.

“The health and safety of our employees and residents is always our top priority,” Boise city Chief of Staff Courtney Washburn said in a news release. “Wearing masks is a proven way to stop the spread of COVID-19 and until there is a higher vaccine rate and fewer positive COVID-19 cases in Ada County, this step is necessary to protect our team and our residents who rely on the services the city provides.”

In a statement, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said it was concerned about rising cases and hospitalizations in Idaho and throughout the U.S. “as the pandemic continues to evolve.”

“We know the delta variant is in Idaho, and spreading. Masks have been shown to reduce spread of COVID-19, and masks remain an important tool in combating spread of the virus. We encourage everyone to get vaccinated and to wear masks wherever appropriate, but we also recognize that both of those are individual choices,” said state health department spokesman Zachary Clark. “We hope Idahoans will choose to protect themselves and those around them by getting vaccinated and following the recommended guidance. Only if more people get vaccinated will we be able to stay ahead of changes in the virus.”

Dr. David Pate, former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System and COVID-19 adviser to Gov. Brad Little, welcomed the CDC’s new guidance. He and some other health experts disagreed with the CDC’s move two months ago to say vaccinated people did not need to wear masks in public.

“But what about other groups of people who are not vaccinated or who are vaccinated, but may not have robust protection from the vaccine (e.g., the frail elderly) who live in the same household with adults who are vaccinated?” Pate wrote on his blog at the time.

Pate said in an interview Tuesday that when you visit Idaho grocery stores, more than half of people should have been wearing masks under the previous guidance that said vaccinated people could safely shed masks. But he said the actual rate of people wearing masks was much lower.

“I think a lot of us are feeling a lot of relief that the CDC has changed its position,” Pate said.

About 46% of all eligible Idahoans are fully vaccinated, compared to 56% of all eligible Americans. Idaho has the sixth lowest full vaccination rate among everyone who can receive the shots. Everyone age 12 and up is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.