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Magic Valley Health District Shuts Down Mask Mandate Again, As Hospital Diverts ICU Patients

A screen capture of the South Central Public Health District board meeting on Nov. 19

The South Central Public Health District board voted down a mask mandate for the Magic Valley counties during a Thursday meeting. It marks the second time in two months the health board has taken action against a policy that local doctors and hospital leaders are calling for.

On Thursday, the public health board let nearly 40 people give in-person testimony for an hour and a half; all were opposed to a face mask mandate. Board members did not hear any updates from local hospital officials because that was not on the agenda. 

However, Dr. Joshua Kern told Twin Falls City Council members on Monday that the St. Luke’s Magic Valley hospital was on ICU diversion that day, meaning patients needing ICU care had to be transferred to Boise. On Tuesday, the hospital was caring for 54 COVID-19 patients, representing 40% of its total patient census. 

During public comment on Thursday, just two individuals wore face masks while speaking. Only one person was allowed in the room with the trustees and health district staff at a time, in order to comply with Gov. Little’s Stage 2 order, which limits the size of gatherings to 10 people. 

The board also received written comments from more than 2,000 people in advance of the meeting. The opinions were more varied than those shared in person, but the majority of the written comments were also in opposition to a mandate. 

The board was considering two mandates — one was slightly less stringent than the other because it allowed for more exemptions to wearing face coverings.

When discussion began after the public comment period, Twin Falls County Commissioner Brent Reinke made a motion, almost immediately, to table the mask mandate discussion indefinitely. He said he didn’t want to give local healthcare workers the impression that they aren’t important, but said the mandate is a “liberty issue,” and he feels strongly about it.

“We’re far enough down the road where I think the unintended consequences are going to be very severe,” Reinke said.

He also said, like the healthcare system, the criminal justice system would be overrun with the passing of a mandate that would come with a $300 fine or up to six months of jail time for violating it. That’s despite his other comments that there would be no feasible way to enforce the order. 

Three trustees were unclear why Reinke wanted to table the order. 

“Is the intention of the motion to deny this?” Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary asked. “‘Cause if that’s the intention, then we should just be transparent."

“I think we need to take action today,” said Tracy Haskin, the trustee from Minidoka County, where the local hospital is overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients

McCleary made a motion to approve the less stringent mask mandate, which received a 4-5 vote. Representatives from Blaine, Camas and Minidoka counties, as well as the medical consultant Dr. Keith Davis, were in favor of the mandate. 

Haskin said Minidoka County Commissioners were split on the mask mandate and instructed her to vote ‘no,’ but she decided to vote in favor of it. Helen Edwards, the representative from Gooding County said she was concerned about local hospital capacity, but voted against the mask mandate, along with trustees from Cassia, Lincoln, Jerome and Twin Falls counties.

The vote fell along the same lines as during the board’s late October meeting, when St. Luke’s Health System officials pleaded with trustees to take action to limit the virus’ spread in the community. During that meeting, the board voted against issuing a mask mandate, but instead voted in favor of sending a letter to Gov. Brad Little, asking him to make face masks mandatory statewide. 

When asked why she voted against a local mandate, but for a statewide one, Board Chair Linda Montgomery from Jerome County said local jurisdictions are concerned about their ability to enforce a mandate, and a statewide order could come with funds to help with enforcement. 

However, when Gov. Little was asked about the South Central Public Health District board’s move to pass the duty to him during his Oct. 26 press conference, he replied to a reporter: “That’s their job.” 

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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