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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. If you have specific questions about the virus in Idaho and the state's response to it, please submit them to us and we'll do our best to report the information you need.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little Declares State Of Emergency For Coronavirus

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

Gov. Brad Little (R) has declared a state of emergency in Idaho as the state tries to bulk up its defenses against the coronavirus and head off any kind of spike in cases as one of the few areas of the country left without a confirmed diagnosis.

The declaration opens up access to federal money and strategic stockpiles of medical equipment, like ventilators. It also loosens restrictions around how the state buys emergency supplies.

“We need to slow down the spread of coronavirus so healthcare facilities are not overwhelmed with too many patients at once,” Little said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said initial models show between 15% and 35% of Idahoans will contract the coronavirus at some point, though “many” of those cases will be mild or less severe. It could affect as many as 625,000 people here.

So far, no one in the state has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Just 131 tests have been performed in Idaho as of Thursday morning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,629 cases have been detected in the U.S., with 41 deaths. About 133,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide with nearly 5,000 deaths, most of which occurred in China, the World Health Organization reports .

State officials have begun contracting with private laboratories in Utah and Washington, which they hope will boost Idaho’s capacity to test for the virus.

“We acknowledge we should be testing more Idahoans,” Hahn said. “We’re in a tight pinch right now, but we think it’s going to improve very quickly as these private labs come on board.”

In a tweet Thursday night, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said the state lab had enough supplies to test between 800-1,000 people in a state of 1.78 million.

Little’s declaration does not limit large gatherings or close schools – steps that other states like Oregon and Washington have taken.

“We don’t have any cases. We’re still in preparation phase,” said Dave Jeppesen, director of the state department of health and welfare.

When asked why he’s not taking such actions at this time, the governor said he has to take into account individuals’ civil liberties when making such a decision.

Little also warned that taking these steps too soon could only lead to bigger problems down the road when Idaho does confirm its first cases of coronavirus.

“If we do something at the wrong time, we might exacerbate it instead of prevent it,” he said.

By urging people to stay home when they’re sick, limit their social calendars and take proper hygiene steps, like washing their hands frequently, he hopes to slow the spread of the virus over the course of months, instead of promoting a sudden spike.

“If everybody hits at once and everybody is flooding the hospitals at once, there’s almost no way we could do that,” Hahn said.

While many of the cases will not be severe enough to require an isolation room within a hospital, there are only 300 such rooms among all facilities statewide. Another 60 rooms could be added to that.

“It’s very clear that [hospitals] have plans in place and they have the ability to share resources, transport, stay in communication and manage the capacity as needed,” Jeppesen said.

It’s unclear how many ventilators Idaho healthcare providers have access to, but the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins found there are about 160,000 nationwide.

That would cover pandemics that mirror flu outbreaks in the 1950s or 1960s, but if the coronavirus follows the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, that stockpile would cover only 20% of patients that would need a ventilator, according to the same group.

Such a situation is playing out in Italy where overwhelmed doctors are choosing which patients will live and which patients will die.

While Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) has ordered all schools to close through the end of March , Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybara said those decisions are being left up to each district at this time.

A “majority” of districts have a response plan in place, Ybarra said, and schools are considering switching to online instruction should the need arise. For rural districts where internet connectivity is limited – if available at all – schools are coordinating pick-up and drop-off zones for homework assignments.

They’re also figuring out how to deliver food to students whose only nutritious meal of the day may come from their school.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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