Mall vaccinations

Kristy Stoos receives her COVID-19 inoculation at Grand Teton Mall in Idaho Falls on Wednesday. “I couldn’t wait to get the shot,” Stoos said. “Praise God and everybody that has helped.”

A day before the final two county-level mask mandates expired in East Idaho, two of the region’s most populated counties were among the nation’s worst COVID-19 hot spots.

The metropolitan area of Idaho Falls is the nation’s top hot spot for new coronavirus cases by population over the past two weeks, and Rexburg is close behind in third place, according to The New York Times’ coronavirus outbreak tracker.

The Times’ tracker also lists Franklin County at an ”extremely high risk level” for its residents getting COVID-19, the publication’s most severe risk category.

“Cases have stayed about the same over the past two weeks and are still very high,” The Times said. “The numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and deaths in the Franklin County area have also remained at about the same level. The test positivity rate in Franklin County is very high, suggesting that cases are being significantly undercounted.”

According to the Idaho Department of Welfare’s COVID-19 data dashboard, Franklin County has the 11th highest positive COVID-19 test rate. Of the 10 Idaho counties with the highest seven-day average COVID-19 test positivity rates, eight are located in East and Southeast Idaho. East Idaho’s Bonneville, Madison and Jefferson counties are the top three, followed by Southeast Idaho’s Bingham and Bannock counties rounding out the top five.

Further, a White House Coronavirus Task Force report from March 12 originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C., lists both Idaho Falls and Rexburg as the only two metro areas within Idaho that are in the “red zone” for high rates of infection and positive tests.

Also included in the “red zone” are Bonneville, Madison, Jefferson, Fremont and Franklin counties. The “red zone” designation means a metro area or county has during the last week reported both new cases at or above 100 per 100,000 population, and a lab test positivity result at or above 10 percent.

The same report lists the metro area of Blackfoot and Bingham County in the “orange zone” for a moderate high rates of infection. The “orange zone” designation means that during the last week reported both new cases between 50–99 per 100,000 population, and a lab test positivity result between 8.0–9.9 percent.

The metro area of Pocatello as well as the Logan County in Utah are listed in the report’s “yellow zone,” meaning those areas during the last week reported both new cases between 10–49 per 100,000 population, and a lab test positivity result between 5.0–7.9 percent.

From March 1 to March 17, 1,201 Bonneville County residents have reportedly been infected with the coronavirus, according to the local health district. In Madison county, 312 new infections were reported so far this month. Across eight mostly rural counties in Eastern Idaho Public Health, 1,817 new cases were reported in that time. The state of Idaho, meanwhile, reported just under 5,000 new cases, according to state numbers.

From March 1 to March 18, a total of 311 Bannock County residents have reportedly been infected with the coronavirus, according to Southeastern Idaho Public Health data. In Bingham County, 261 new infections were reported so far this month. Across all eight counties include in Southeastern Idaho Public Health’s district, 637 new cases were reported in that time, meaning approximately 90 percent of the new infection in Southeast Idaho are occurring in Bannock and Bingham counties.

“When we look at our eight-county region in Southeastern Idaho, (on Wednesday) we had 76 new cases reported and that’s a pretty big jump from what we have been seeing over the last couple of months,” SIPH Director Maggie Mann said in a Facebook live video Thursday morning. “That’s concerning to us. One day does not a trend make, but we are definitely paying attention.”

It’s not the first time Rexburg has been that high on national charts. Last fall, as thousands of college students returned to the area with about 40,000 people, it became one of the nation’s worst hot spots, according to the Times.

The latest hot spot designations cap two weeks of reversals in East Idaho’s coronavirus infection decline.

Eastern Idaho coronavirus spread - White House 03.18.2021

The virus is spreading rapidly in eastern Idaho, where rates of infection and test positivity are high, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force report on Idaho from March 12

The rapidly rising infection rates for East Idaho have come after regional officials stepped away from issuing any pandemic control measures, despite warnings of more infectious virus variants. On March 4, the Eastern Idaho Public Health board voted to stop issuing mask mandates as routine orders of business. The health board set the last two mandates, in Teton and Bonneville counties, to expire on Thursday.

Rural and metropolitan areas alike in the region have driven up the state’s reported coronavirus case count, flooding hospitals with more COVID-19 patients and pushing intensive care units to stress levels unseen since last November, when hospitals narrowly approached a resource crisis that would’ve left the sickest to wait to access precious resources while doctors try to save people with the best chance of survival.

By Tuesday night, about 90 percent of all staffed ICU beds in the region were full. An average of eight were available over the past three days, according to the health district. In Idaho Falls, which holds the bulk of the region’s less than four dozen staffed ICU beds, four of 39 beds were free last week, the Post Register previously reported.

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.