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Idaho health officials say COVID-19 is here to stay. What does that mean?

They believe the endemic coronavirus will eventually become easier to deal with.

Just like influenza, the virus that causes COVID-19 is here to stay.

An official from one of Idaho’s largest hospitals on Tuesday said that COVID-19 is shifting from “pandemic” to “endemic,” meaning it will continue to circulate.

Last year, Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System, thought the day that Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout began last December would be “the D-Day in the battle against the coronavirus,” he said during a media briefing Tuesday. “Sadly, I’m here to tell you that we’ve lost the war, that COVID is here to stay. And the reason it is here is because we cannot vaccinate enough people to fully eradicate the disease — and, absent being able to do that and accomplish herd immunity, we now need to move into the phase of recognizing that COVID can be a disease to be managed for the long-term future.”

What does that mean? Does it mean that surges will continue to roll through Idaho? Nemerson and Idaho’s chief epidemiologist said they’re not sure, but they can make some educated guesses.

“What we don’t know is what strains will emerge, as people continue to be unvaccinated and the disease continues to spread,” Nemerson said. “What we do know is that we expect to see surges periodically … and hopefully they won’t be as severe, because at least 50% of the public will be fully vaccinated.”

About 42.5% of Idaho’s population is fully vaccinated, as of Oct. 13, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is out of Idaho’s total population, which includes children who cannot yet be vaccinated. Among those who can be vaccinated — Idahoans age 12 and up — the rate is about 53.4%, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

At least 3,157 Idahoans have died from COVID-19, and more than 11,000 have been hospitalized, according to the state health department. There have been at least 270,601 cases of COVID-19 in Idaho so far — widely believed to be an undercount.

The question still unanswered is whether new variants or new strains will be more contagious, more severe, more deadly.

“Medical history suggests that, like with the flu, the more severe surges like we’re experiencing right now (will become) much, much less common,” Nemerson said. “But, nevertheless, there are episodes, at least on an annual basis, that we’ll have to deal with.”

State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said she hopes that, like other viruses have, the COVID-19 virus will become milder or better tolerated over time, “like some of the other seasonal coronaviruses are.”

Whether it will continue to strain Idaho’s health care system — or push it beyond capacity — will depend on many things, Hahn and Nemerson said.

If COVID-19 becomes a seasonal virus that peaks in the winter, she said, it will stack on top of existing winter respiratory viruses — influenza and RSV — that already send adults and children to the hospital each year.

Idaho remains in a statewide hospital crisis declaration, Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said during the Tuesday briefing. The crisis may have begun to abate in the Treasure Valley. Local hospital officials report that the rapidly escalated fourth surge of COVID-19 may be softening. However, as with previous surges, there are hot spots around the state as the virus pinballs around unvaccinated communities.

“For the first time in three months, we’ve finally seen a small decline in COVID spread in our communities. This is not universal across Idaho, and while we are seeing this and it creates significant hope that we may finally have reached a peak, there is no guarantee that we’ve reached that point, yet,” Nemerson said. “Sadly, we continue to see a steady increase in ICU admissions and deaths, the vast majority of these, as we all know, are entirely preventable if only patients would become vaccinated.”

Nemerson said the health system has ramped up its efforts to help frontline staff deal with seeing preventable deaths on every shift, and help them stay resilient as their patients and patients’ families question their motives or threaten them.

His advice to the public: Keep following public health recommendations, including getting a vaccine when it’s offered.

But his advice on living in an Idaho with endemic COVID-19 was, essentially, for people to change how they live.

“Be careful who you choose to socialize with,” Nemerson said. “They should have the same belief that you do in protecting themselves. Establish social pause with those friends who trust. Socialize outside rather than indoors. … Frequent businesses that are COVID safe. Don’t attend concerts and large events, whether they’re indoors or outdoors, particularly those events where the enforcement of vaccination and masking is not present.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.