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Panhandle District Health Passes Idaho's First Region-Wide Mask Mandate

Lake Pend Oreille, North Idaho
Stan Petersen via Flickr
Five counties in North Idaho, which includes Lake Pend Oreille seen here, are now under a mask mandate after Panhandle Health District board members approved the roughly 60-day ordinance Thursday.

Facing a significant rise in cases of COVID-19, Panhandle Health District passed a mask mandate Thursday covering all of the region’s five counties in a 4-2 vote. It takes effect immediately.

It’s the first of Idaho’s seven public health districts to issue a region-wide order requiring the use of face masks after Gov. Brad Little relinquished control of the coronavirus response to these districts in June.

“We are facing a humanitarian crisis and a health crisis not seen in the past 100 years,” said board member and registered nurse Jai Nelson.

The infection and positivity rates in North Idaho are significant. Four of the five counties in the region, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone, have test positivity rates in double-digit figures with three of them trending even higher. Shoshone County’s positivity rate, according to the health district, is at nearly 25%.

The five counties combined have recorded 95 deaths and 7,175 cases since the beginning of the pandemic as of Thursday afternoon.

At Kootenai Health, Idaho’s largest hospital in that area, patient transfers are being denied from more rural hospitals. At one point, Kootenai Health said it was at 99% capacity.

“When the cases and the hospitalizations and the deaths all surge at the same time, as is happening right now in Idaho and in our region, it means a tidal wave is coming,” Nelson said.

She excoriated her fellow board members for rescinding a previous mask mandate in Kootenai County last month.

“Your attitude of carelessness is driving up the infection rate. If this is the case, then please bow out gracefully and abstain with your vote,” Nelson said. “Moreover, if you don’t believe there’s a pandemic or that coronavirus even exists, please abstain.”

Board member Glen Bailey said her presentation sounded “like a lot of good scare tactics,” but questioned the efficacy of a mandate.

“If the magic face mask is so effective, then why are we seeing the same spike throughout the metropolitan areas,” Bailey asked.

Despite neighboring Washington state also experiencing spikes in cases of COVID-19, Idaho has 2.7 times as many cases per capita. Washington has also tested more of its population and has a lower infection rate, according to Panhandle Health.

Bailey was one of the two no votes on the measure, saying he doesn’t believe such a mandate would work.

“How many of us have resisted something as teenagers when we’ve been told, ‘You will do this,’ versus we were educated and taught and we could make that decision on our own without penalty of law?”

The board took no public comment on the mandate Thursday. It will be re-evaluated at the group’s next meeting in January.

Correction: This story previously misidentified Glen Bailey as a Bonner County Commissioner. 

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.
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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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