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Idaho Still Shuns Mask Mandate, And Neighboring States Bear The Burden

Intermountain Healthcare

As hospitals around the Mountain West run out of space, some patients are fleeing to states that have more health mandates, which further burdens states that have been more aggressive in fighting COVID-19.

The Washington Hospital Association found in a survey last week some Idahoans are being transferred to hospitals in Spokane, while many more are driving over the state border themselves. 

“They’re hearing the Idaho hospitals are really full, and they’re driving over to Spokane or Newport or someplace on the Washington or Oregon border,” said Cassie Sauer, CEO of the association.

Sauer said about 35% of the patients at a Newport, Wash. hospital are generally from Idaho, but now it’s around 55 to 60%. Meanwhile, a hospital in Spokane has reported getting 10 COVID patient transfers from Idaho, and is seeing a 20% increase in Idaho patients overall. 

She says in Pullman, a hospital reported getting one patient from Montana and six patients from Idaho — with one even having a Moscow, Idaho ambulance bring them over. 

“It’s growing and our hospitals are quite concerned about it,” she said. “Border hospitals have been trying to work with the Idaho health jurisdictions, and really struggling to get any acknowledgement that those areas need to adhere to science and wearing their masks.”

Sauer says Washington healthcare workers are frustrated they have to pick up the slack where Idaho is dropping the ball. And she fears what may happen if neighbors like Idaho, Wyoming and Montana don’t adopt more health mandates ahead of Thanksgiving.

“We have huge concerns about them. We’re going to be strained to take care of our own residents,” she said. 

Sauer really hopes Idaho adopts a state-wide mask mandate like Washington and Oregon. That wish comes as a North Idaho county voted toeliminate their mask mandate just as a hospital there nearly hit capacity. 

At a press conference Friday, though, Idaho’s governor Brad Little continued to ask residents to adopt “personal responsibility” and wear masks voluntarily, even as the comment section of his live-streamed event was riddled with staunch anti-mask sentiment.

Refuting that method, Sauer says the lack of a mask mandate now is “unconscionable,” and states are risking the lives of healthcare workers and citizens around the entire region by not implementing them. 

She said some health professionals are even encouraging Idaho hospitals to look elsewhere because they don’t want to take any more of those patients.

“One of the hospital leaders said ‘We do not support extending an invitation to send us more,’” Sauer said. 

Hospitals are required by federal law to take patients with life-threatening issues, regardless where they’re from — but only until they run out of room themselves. 

Like Idaho, Wyoming continues to hold out on mask mandates. Colorado officials warn their hospitals could soon start running out of room, too, and many Utah hospitals already have. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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