Amid Ballooning Infections, Leading Idaho Republican Tried To Block COVID-19 Tracking

Jul 8, 2020

As Ada County was grappling with growing evidence of a spike in cases of COVID-19 in mid-June linked to the reopening of bars, a high-ranking Republican state lawmaker voted to block further monitoring of these outbreaks.

During a June 18 emergency session, Central District Health Director Russell Duke told the agency’s Board of Health the majority of coronavirus cases that week were related to customers or employees at bars, according to meeting minutes. Cases outside of those businesses were also growing.

State officials recorded 300 confirmed cases in Ada County that week. It tallied just 53 the week before. Since that June 18 meeting, 2,061 cases have been confirmed in Ada County.

At the time, Duke recommended working with downtown Boise bar owners to make sure their prevention plans were sufficient enough to tamp down further spread of the virus.

But with the coronavirus’s lengthy incubation period, sometimes taking up to 14 days for people to show symptoms, board member and Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo (D) moved to monitor bar activities and cases related to them.

State Rep. Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett), vice chair for the Central District Health board, was the lone no vote against tracking these ballooning outbreaks related to bars.

“We are really fluid on how we’re judging things and so I have a lot of concerns about that, in that we need to get our metrics right before we just start shutting people down,” Blanksma said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The original goal, she said, was to avoid overloading Idaho’s health care capacity, which is limited in much of the state’s vast rural landscape. Establishing metrics to give business owners clarity on whether they might expect a pending shutdown is also critical, Blanksma said.

“I want people to understand what they're measuring against and trying to do these kind of fluid targets makes it really difficult.”

But tracking outbreak clusters is one of the key tools epidemiologists can use to minimize the spread of diseases like COVID-19 and keep hospitals from becoming overloaded.

“We’re in the middle of a public health emergency,” said Janet Basemen, the Associate Dean of University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “One of the things that’s going to help us get it under control is having good data in order to help with decision making.”

Figuring out which businesses have been linked to known outbreaks of the coronavirus helps public health officials reach out to other customers who might’ve been exposed or craft targeted restrictions to protect the community from upticks in transmission.

Is there any reason in which there’s a public health reason to not track such clusters?

“No,” Baseman said. “I can’t think of any, let me put it that way.”

“Not collecting data or organizing data so that we can figure out what it means is not going to make [the virus] go away.”

Shortly after Central District Health’s board began tracking these cases, it voted to close bars and large venues during another emergency meeting. Blanksma was out of cell range and wasn't aware there was a meeting, but said she would’ve opposed the move.

The fourth-highest ranking Republican in the Idaho House has been skeptical of the disease since Idaho reported its first confirmed case March 13.

“Ok enough. This is not the plague. Stop treating it as if it is. Wash your hands and act like responsible humans,” Blanksma wrote in a tweet March 15.

When access to testing was still limited in mid-March and the legislature was set to adjourn, Blanksma came out against imposing restrictions on areas of Idaho that had yet to confirm a single case.

Asked if she was concerned that a lack of testing was concealing the true extent of the virus’s reach, she replied, “How much do you want to test for? Do you want to test everyone everywhere they go? I mean, there’s a limit to what you can test for.”

A few weeks after Gov. Brad Little issued his stay-at-home order, Blanksma questioned the legitimate need for such a blanket policy, saying it wasn’t based on any metrics or data she had seen, urging him to hand over control of the coronavirus response to the regional public health districts.

Idaho’s rapid rise in new cases of COVID-19 continues to lead the nation compared to how many it had recorded two weeks ago, according to NPR.

The state’s largest health systems told Central District Health on Tuesday that they’re bracing for a rush on hospital bed space. More people are already hospitalized at St. Luke’s than the high water marks the hospital set over the past three months.

Much of the initial spike in cases were in young people who showed few, if any, symptoms. But St. Luke’s has seen a four-fold increase in the 40-59 age bracket and a five-fold increase in those over 60.

Driving home the seriousness of what could happen, James Souza, St. Luke’s chief medical officer, said they were prepared to adopt a crisis-level response to treating patients if hospitals become overloaded.

If it’s a battle for bed space between a young student and a vulnerable patient who was about to be admitted to a long-term care facility?

“I think there is no question who we will need to prioritize in a scarcity situation,” Souza said. “None at all.”

As of Tuesday, 51 people are hospitalized at St. Luke’s after contracting the coronavirus, with 14 in the intensive care unit. St. Alphonsus Health had 27 people admitted and six in the ICU.

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

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