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Idaho nears a milestone of enduring tragedy: 5,000 dead of COVID

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Nearly 5,000 Idahoans died of causes related to COVID-19 between March 2020 and July 2022. (Audrey Dutton/Idaho Capital Sun)

Pandemic has cut short the lives of many more Idahoans through ‘excess deaths’

Idaho will soon lose its 5,000th life to COVID-19.

The state’s coronavirus-related death toll reached 4,993 on Monday. Two of the dead were under age 18. Another 272 were adults who died before their 50th birthday.

As the wave of hospitalizations due to the delta variant slammed Idaho’s hospitals in fall 2021, Dr. Jim Souza of St. Luke’s Health System said the system’s hospitals had lost 80 patients to COVID-19 in the first three weeks of September. More than half of those patients were in their 50s or younger.

Souza described the “really morbid exercise” of considering what those numbers meant.

“We have lost more than 1,100 life years” due to those premature deaths, he said. “Can you imagine? For the people who say, ‘We all die some time,’ yes, we do. But these people didn’t need to die now, and they didn’t need to die like this. … Can you imagine all of the life and experiences contained within those 1,000-plus years? We shouldn’t trivialize that. These people deserve better.”

Excess deaths from COVID, and other causes

The lives lost are just the official tally of coronavirus-related deaths. The pandemic took more lives than that — directly and indirectly.

Federal data on excess deaths show that, since February 2020, about 1,300 more Idahoans have died than would be expected for Idaho — on top of the thousands of excess deaths known to have been caused by COVID-19.

Some of those additional excess deaths may have been COVID-19 related but were attributed to comorbidities, like heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease.

Some of them may have been related to crisis and strain in Idaho’s hospitals. For months, patients had to spend hours or days in the emergency room; doctors had to send critically ill patients by airplane or helicopter to other states; and Idaho’s overloaded health care systems had to suspend procedures as major as heart surgery or tumor removal.

COVID far more deadly than flu

During the six years leading up to the arrival of COVID-19, an average of 43 Idahoans died each year from influenza. When pneumonia-related deaths were combined with the flu deaths, that rose to an average of about 224 each year.

The annualized number of deaths from COVID-19 is much higher: about 2,180 per year.

The coronavirus disease was more fatal in nearly all age groups, too.

Flu killed a yearly average of 1.5 people under age 45, during the six years leading up to the pandemic.

When pneumonia and flu were combined, that annual average rose to just seven deaths of people under age 45.

The coronavirus disease has killed 88 Idahoans under age 40, and another 186 who were in their 40s, since the spring of 2020.

The deaths left families and friends without their loved ones, left children to mourn their parents, and left health care workers traumatized.

Once, at the height of Idaho’s delta wave, deaths were so frequent that workers in one morgue had no choice but to stack bodies on their sides, like books on a bookshelf, according to a person who worked on the front lines at the time but was not authorized to speak for their employer.

The dark days of so many preventable deaths may be in the rearview mirror for now.

Vaccines, medications and treatments such as antiviral drugs, monoclonal antibody infusions and preventive medications like Evusheld have helped people at risk of severe illness to recover at home.

While highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus are spreading fast through the state, the number of people hospitalized and in critical care remain relatively low. Daily deaths are in the single digits, compared with dozens of deaths per day at the height of last fall’s delta surge.