As Magic Valley Hospitals Fill Up, Health Board Issues Large Gathering Limit, But No Mask Mandate

Oct 21, 2020

During the South Central Public Health District board meeting on Wednesday, trustees in the Magic Valley heard updates from hospitals, which are under great stress as they're running out of beds and staff to take care of patients. The trustees voted against an order for mandatory face masks, but passed a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people indoors.


At the beginning of the meeting, St. Luke's Magic Valley in Twin Falls, the biggest hospital in the region, reported it has had to limit elective surgeries that require overnight hospital stays for this week and the next week. It also had to send patients who showed up at the Emergency Department one night in the past week to the hospital in Boise because there was no space.

"We're already there," said Dr. Joshua Kern of St. Luke's Magic Valley. "We're at the point where we talked about trying to avoid getting." He said throughout the pandemic, and even through the spikes in the Wood River Valley and the Treasure Valley, St. Luke's was doing OK and holding firm. However, Kern said, now St. Luke's is ringing the alarm. "Today is that day."

Mike Fenello, the Vice President of Population Health at St. Luke's, asked board members to take action to limit the spread of the virus and the stress on hospitals. 

"When those of us in leadership don't make the tough decisions, we are defaulting the burden to the frontline staff," Fenello said. "We need to make fundamentally different decisions. Please help those on the front lines,” he continued. “Frankly, they need you to help. So, help.” 

But following that plea, the board voted against implementing a mandatory face mask order, citing questions about enforcement and concerns from the business community about the ability of certain industries to wear face coverings while working. 

Instead, trustees voted in favor of sending Gov. Brad Little a letter, asking him to consider a mandatory face mask order for the whole state. Gov. Little has repeatedly said he wants local entities to make recommendations and mandates themselves. 

The board voted in favor, 5-4, for a limit on gatherings of more than 50 people indoors. Several exemptions to that order include gatherings on school properties, in places of worship and in healthcare settings. 

Twin Falls County Commissioner Brent Reinke, Lincoln County Commissioner Roy Hubert and Cassia County Commissioner Robert Kunau voted against all motions regarding restrictions. 

Cassia, Minidoka, Gooding and Twin Falls have had some of the highest per-capita case rates in the state in the past week. The South Central Public Health District places all but Lincoln County in the "High Risk" category. The positivity rate of COVID-19 tests coming back in the health district is 18%, higher than the state's rate of 11%. Hospitals in Minidoka and Cassia counties reported test positivity rates around 40%. 

The public health district is also way behind on contact tracing efforts, as more positive test results come in each day than staff members can trace. 

And hospitals across the Magic Valley are at critical points. Minidoka Memorial Hospital expanded its COVID-19 unit, and has been on "divert status" several times in the past few weeks, during which it was searching for beds in eastern Idaho, Salt Lake City and Twin Falls, all of which have reported full hospitals in the past week. 

All hospitals reported staffing levels at critical points with large percentages of staff members at each hospital out of work due to COVID-19-related quarantines. St. Luke’s said each shift is short on anywhere from four to 14 nurses.

"We're stressed. Our staff are very fatigued. This is just hitting us pretty hard," said Tom Murphy, the CEO of the Minidoka Memorial Hospital. 

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 

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