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Idaho Moves To Stage 3 Of Gov. Little's COVID-19 Plan Despite High ICU Admissions

Darin Oswald
Idaho Statesman

Idaho is moving forward into Stage 3 of Gov. Brad Little’s reopening plan as case counts and hospitalizations have fallen since their peaks in December.

Gathering limits have now increased from 10 to 50 people, with schools, school sports and churches exempt from such requirements.

But the specific criteria used to authorize the move are unclear.

The latest metrics released by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) from Jan. 25 show the number of ICU patients still significantly above the 25 patient per day average needed to graduate out of Stage 2.

Idaho’s most recent 14-day average for ICU admissions, as of Jan. 30, was more than 62 patients.

Little’s press secretary, Marissa Morrison, released a statement acknowledging the change Tuesday afternoon.

“Case counts and hospitalizations have declined for weeks, and his decision to move Idaho forward to Stage 3 was made after evaluating impacts to public health, the economy, and students and families.”

Morrison said the criteria will be updated and available for the public to see online today.

An IDHW spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment as to how or why these changes were made.

Little made his announcement remotely Tuesday without taking questions from reporters, in contrast with previous press conferences any time Idaho moved through the different phases of his reopening plan.

Idaho’s positivity rate has declined to 8.3%, according to IDHW – down from a high of 19.1% in November. It still ranks 16th among all states in cases of COVID-19 per capita since Jan. 21, 2020.

“We are doing a good job, Idaho,” Little said. “Let’s keep it up.”

In championing the move, the governor urged residents to stay vigilant to maintain the state’s downward trend in case counts.

“Please, continue to choose to wear masks, continue to keep a safe distance from others, get tested as needed and stay home if you’re sick or have been directly exposed to COVID-10. Choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Dr. Christine Hahn, the state’s epidemiologist, also urged caution as the number of cases in the state drops.

“This is not the time to throw the masks away and go back to normal,” Hahn said. “We’re not there yet.”

New, more transmissible variants from across the world have been found in states across the U.S. recently. Hahn said it’s something state officials are watching closely.

“We know that it is probably here. We haven’t detected it yet. We do remain vigilant where our labs are looking for this strain, but we should behave as if it’s here or on its way.”

The move by Little may also release a legislative pressure valve as he’s faced significant backlash from state lawmakers over his handling of the pandemic

Legislators promised last year to limit executive authority during an emergency, cut pandemic restrictions, like mask mandates and gathering limits, as well as to end Idaho’s ongoing emergency declaration.

After Little’s announcement, Senate Republican leaders thanked the governor for his decision to move Idaho out of Stage 2.

“I think we have a major step going towards what we wanted to have happen and what a…significant percentage [of Idahoans] wanted to see happen,” said Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R-Boise), specifically pointing to the lack of an enforcement mechanism in the new order.

The Senate will not take up its latest attempt to revoke the previous Stage 2 restrictions imposed in mid-November.

House lawmakers have already passed a resolution that would eliminate all gathering restrictions, which currently awaits a committee hearing in the Senate.

Neither chamber as a whole has taken up their respective proposals to lift Idaho’s emergency declaration. The declaration imposes no restrictions and only allows the state to receive federal disaster relief money.

If ended, state officials have said it could jeopardize about $20 million earmarked for the vaccine rollout, veterans’ programs and local school districts, among other things.

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!