Gov. Brad Little is yanking Idaho backwards to a modified third phase of his reopening plan, as hospitals say they’re on the brink of not being able to catch up with a surge of coronavirus cases that show little sign of slowing.
“My fellow Idahoans, we are in a crisis with our health care system in Idaho due to the pandemic,” Little said at the beginning of his press conference Monday.
In pulling back to Stage 3, hardly any new restrictions will be added.
“It doesn’t mean our economy is on lockdown – our economy will remain open. It doesn’t mean in-person church will end. It doesn’t mean we’re restricting travel in or out of the state,” he said. “It especially doesn’t mean that we should go to full remote learning in our schools.”
Gatherings will be capped at 50 people and masks will be required only for those visiting a nursing home.
The question of how any of these restrictions will be enforced still lies with Little’s trust in Idahoans’ sense of personal responsibility.
“I sincerely hope that some people have passed the point of thinking the pandemic is not real or is not a big deal, or that their personal actions don’t really affect anything,” he said.
It wasn't long before Little faced pushback from members of his own party who found his decision to be out of line. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who runs for office separately from the governor, said she was "disappointed" in his move.
"Instead of working with stakeholders to implement strategies to expand our treatment capacity, our state is moving towards more top-down control over our businesses and citizens," McGeachin wrote in a Facebook post.
Other sitting state lawmakers said they would refuse to follow any of these new restrictions.
Idaho has struggled with its response to the coronavirus since early summer when cases and deaths spiked. After a brief dip in September, case counts exploded past previous high-water marks, leaving hospitals bursting at the seams. Admissions for patients with COVID-19 jumped 55% in the past two weeks.
Public health officials, county commissioners and city officials have also actively rejected taking steps to corral the coronavirus aside from issuing recommendations, which have been ignored and, at times, mocked across the state.
Doctors in North Idaho told Panhandle Health District members they would have to ship patients to Portland and Seattle after they were 99% full at one point a little over a week ago.
Despite their pleas, board members voted 4-3 to lift a mask mandate for Kootenai County, which recorded 551 new cases last week – the third highest in the state. Board member Allen Banks even questioned whether the coronavirus was real.
Adams County Commissioners last week unanimously approved a resolution declaring the county free of any and all restrictions or recommendations related to COVID-19. One of the commissioners, Vicki Purdy, sits on Southwest District Public Health’s board and has publicly compared mask mandates to slavery on her Facebook page.
Twin Falls Mayor Suzanne Hawkins said last week that issuing a mask mandate would be like putting a BAND-AID on a “gaping wound.” Board members of South Central Public Health District, which covers Twin Falls, instead voted to send a letter to Little urging that he be the one to implement a statewide mandate.
Meanwhile, cases across the Magic Valley are surging.
St. Luke’s Magic Valley is limiting the number of children it can admit because of capacity issues after it initially stopped accepting them, aside from newborns and neonatal intensive care patients last week. The health system’s children’s hospital in Boise was strained with the transfers, leading to the change.
“The recent surge of patients we’re seeing really may not be possible to keep up with,” Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s Magic Valley said during Monday’s press conference.
And they may soon run out of places to send patients. Utah hospitals told state health officials that in seven to 10 days, they may no longer be able to accept transfer patients due to their own capacity issues due to COVID-19.
Idaho health officials are now having conversations about considering something they said they’ve wanted to avoid at all costs: activating the state’s crisis care plan, which includes guidance for doctors to decide who among their patients would live and which ones would die — something Utah hospitals are expecting to do.
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