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Idaho Matters Reporter Roundtable Discusses State Coronavirus Response: March 13, 2020

Brynn Anderson
AP Images
Empty shelves of cleaning supplies are seen at a Publix Supermarket amid concern over the COVID-19 virus on Monday, March 9, 2020, in Pembroke Pines, Fla.


UPDATE: March 13, 4:45 p.m. Since this segment aired, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced the first case of COVID-19 in Idaho. Click here to learn more

Between Coronavirus and the Idaho Legislature, there's lots to discuss on this week's Reporter Roundtable. Listen to hear reporter Don Day from BoiseDev, Scott McIntosh and Cynthia Sewell from the Idaho Statesman along with James Dawson and Frankie Barnhill of Boise State Public Radio to break down this week in news. 


GEMMA GAUDETTE: This is Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette. It is Friday, time for our Reporter Roundtable. This is when we get you updated on the news that made headlines around our state this week. Our panel today, Scott McIntosh with The Idaho Statesman, Don Day with BoiseDev.com, and Cynthia Sewell with the Idaho Statesman. And our James Dawson with Boise Public Radio News is going to be joining us on the phone in a moment. But I want to welcome all of our panelists in studio right now. Happy Friday.
GAUDETTE: Well, Coronavirus, it is what everyone is talking about. We have literally spent the last five minutes here in the studio before we came on live talking about it. So, Don, let's start with this morning, because it was the governor holding a news conference, but also signing an emergency declaration.
DON DAY: Yeah, I remember on Monday when we're like, boy, I wonder if Treefort will cancel, and here we are on Friday.
GAUDETTE: Oh yeah.
DAY: And just about everything is canceled. The governor held a pretty extensive news conference and answered dozens of questions and really talked about what the state is doing, what it's recommending and where we should go. The question that I'm getting a lot, I'm sure Cynthia's is getting a lot, I'm sure you're getting a lot, Scott, is 'what is up with testing?' So they've tested 131 people so far. That's 118 to the state labs and then 13 additional through commercial labs. Really important. I don't know if you said it, if I missed a bit. The no confirmed cases yet. Confirmed I think is really the key word there.
DAY: Because we're not testing a lot of folks. They're trying to ramp that up and get a more rapid process in place. Dr. Christine Hahn, the state's medical director, said that they need more commercial testing capacity as well. And she said pretty bluntly, 'we acknowledge we should be testing more Idahoans.' She's really been saying that medical providers of the hospitals and the primary care should submit the sickest cases only. And those structural limitations are really limiting who they can test.
GAUDETTE: I thought that was really interesting. Jimmy is on the phone with us. And Jimmy, you were actually at the news conference today and asked some really pointed questions that I think needed to be needed to be asked. So talk to us from your standpoint, Jimmy, about being physically in the room with the news conference and what that was like.
JAMES DAWSON: Yeah. I mean, it feels like you could say that they were taking it pretty seriously. You know, they stayed and answered all of our questions. I mean, it was almost an hour-long press conference. So that's at least something. However, at this time, they are not taking any kind of, I would say, extraordinary steps to limit public gatherings like we've seen in Washington state and Oregon. You have the governor saying that it's kind of a balancing act, right, between infringing upon someone's civil liberties and hoping that they, you know, quote, "do the right thing" by self isolating. The problem with that, though, is that there are a lot of people who are asymptomatic. They don't have the cough. They don't have the fever. But they can potentially still spread the virus through the rest of the community and through the rest of vulnerable populations.
GAUDETTE: Well, and in fact, I believe the governor said a couple of times when asked about what's being done, he says, "well, we're not there yet. We're not at that level yet."  
DAWSON: I was going to say to that point, you had the Department of Health and Welfare director Dave Jeppesen say that they're still in the, quote, "preparatory phase." Right. And it's like, okay, well, we don't have any confirmed cases yet. As I think I heard Don mentioned earlier, we've only tested, you know, one hundred and thirty some odd cases between the state lab and the private contractors, which is not a lot in the state of 1.75 million people. Right. I asked the state epidemiologist, Dr. Christine Hahn, you know, "what are the models showing? How many people do we expect to eventually contract this virus, whether it's to be or not?" And she said between, I believe, 15 and 35 percent of the entire state, which is 260,000 to 612,000 people, will get the Coronavirus in Idaho as they're modeling.
DAY: Right. And it's it's in part to say that's some level saw. A lot of those cases will be mild.
DAY: So I think it's important that people hear that number. They don't go, wow, that's a lot of people who are going to be in hospitals. Not the case. That's the total number who may catch it at some level.
GAUDETTE: And let's also be clear, Don, you brought this point up. And Jimmy, maybe you can talk a little bit more about this. Is the testing because Christine Hahn (state epidemiologist) did say that she is confident there are enough tests. She did say the problem is not enough testing capacity. So there's criteria for who gets tested right now. And so they're using, what, three private labs, Jimmy, or they brought through private labs? And plus, we have our own state lab that can test, correct?
DAWSON: Yeah, I believe those numbers are correct. And they just came online, as of, you know, fairly recently. And we should say that those labs are also out of state in Utah and Washington. So, I mean, depending on -- we didn't get specifics as to how they are delivering those samples to those labs. But I mean, turnaround might be an issue if that takes a while to get them to wherever they are in Utah and Washington.
GAUDETTE: Well, and I do want to talk about this idea of flattening the curve. The governor had a graph. And because this really is kind of part of that push, I think, for people to understand about not panicking and maybe why things are being closed down at such a rapid pace and having more of that. What are they calling it? Kind of social distance. 
DAWSON: Social distancing.
GAUDETTE: Social distancing, right. Well, maybe we all need a little bit more of that sometimes. But it is this idea that you if you flatten that graph. So think of a big kind of peak, right. Like a bell curve. And when you flatten that, you do spread it out. So you will still have the same amount of cases. It's just that you can the medical community can have a handle on it so that people who do get it at a more serious level can get the care they need and they can recover.
DAY: And Hahn, she sort of said that she said if there's a wave of illnesses, we don't want it to be all at once. They talked about hospital capacity in Idaho, and it's a big unknown right now. There are ways that hospital capacity can be expanded. She used the phrase "flip of a switch" or the governors have flipped the switch and then said it's really not that easy. But we can't expand capacity to some level, but they don't want to sort of a run on the medical system. And so all of these events that we're gonna talk about in all these precautions and keeping large gatherings apart, the hope is that that's going to extend how long it takes for those infections to happens. They don't all happen at once.
DAWSON: Oh, I was going to say that the numbers that I have for, you know, the the isolation rooms that hospitals have available statewide, we're looking at 300 rooms and they can expand that out to 60 more rooms for a total of 360 rooms. So, I mean, again, it all depends on the severity of the illness that someone, you know, comes down with as to whether they need that isolation room. But still, that's, you know, such a small number when we're talking about, you know, up to six hundred thousand plus cases in the state.
GAUDETTE: All right. But I think it's really seriously important for our listeners to understand that flattening of the curve, and why. Because even with those numbers, Jimmy, of isolation rooms, if you can flatten that curve, that could potentially be enough.
DAY: Lifesaving.
GAUDETTE: Yes. Right.
DAWSON: It could be. It's just highly dependent on whether or not, as Governor Brad Little said, whether or not people do the right thing, stay home when they're sick, you know, frequently wash their hands, don't go out in public as much. But we've seen examples where for Italy, example, for example, has not done that. People in Italy were not doing the right thing. And the spread has gone, you know, much, much, much further than it could have been in other countries.
GAUDETTE: Well, look, we've seen that here, too. I mean, there are reports of a dad in Missouri, though, that one daughter tested positive for Coronavirus and he took the other daughter to a school dance. You know, there was a person who got on a flight who had already tested positive. I mean, so. But that is the hope is that people do the right thing.
MCINTOSH: Well, and that was kind of the point of the column that I wrote this week that we started really kind of doubling down on reporting maybe two weeks ago and kind of the key of catching this early and making sure that we are doing social distancing and. But, you know, two weeks ago, we really we were viewing this as a as an inconvenience that, oh, you know, I don't want to cancel Treefort. I still want to bet on March Madness games. And this is just a silly inconvenience for me. And boy, talk about going from zero to 200 in a matter of a day. You know, I wrote that column on Thursday morning, yesterday morning, and throughout the day, you know, I take full credit for the mass hysteria.
GAUDETTE: Somebody should!
MCINTOSH: Yeah, throughout the day, it was just one after another canceling and and finally recognizing, yeah, If we if we limit some of this these social gatherings and travel, then then we can flatten that curve. And you know, hopefully it was in time and we shouldn't have been doing it two weeks ago.
GAUDETTE: Well I think part of that conversation and we've been talking about that a lot within our station and I'm sure you know, you guys have too, is that many of us are not in that high risk category. And Scott, you mentioned this in your article is that it's not necessarily about those of us who are not in the high risk category. It is about doing the right thing so that we protect those who are in that higher risk category.
CYNTHIA SEWELL: Well, I think one of the things to consider with this is how quickly once it starts, how quickly it goes. I mean, that the U.S. had its first case January 21st. And now today we're up to there've been 100 new cases today just so far since noon, or prior to noon, and putting us almost at 1900 cases. And so once it starts, it goes. But Idaho, for some, call it luck, call it. I mean, who knows what to attribute it to yet? Idaho, Montana and West Virginia are the only three, not two. So there's this concern that maybe Idaho thinks, well, we're not seeing the other problems that other states are. So let's not worry about it. But on the flip side, we are getting a little bit ahead of the curve because we're trying to flatten it before we even get our first case. And so maybe that will work to our advantage. But we also don't know if our numbers are off because our testing is off.
DAY: And I would say that so the governor said, you know, why don't we have any cases? And he said how it's luck, and he was kind of joking. But a former federal epidemiologist who is a Stanford professor, a friend of mine saw my tweet and she just said simply "not enough testing."
DAY: The reason we don't have confirmed cases in Idaho is that there's not enough testing. And I think confirmed is really the important word here. Not to induce undue concern, but the likelihood that there are cases in this state that have not been tested, seems like it's probably pretty high. And so it's easy to say, oh, there's no coronavirus in Idaho. We don't know if that's true because we can't test everybody who needs to be tested.
GAUDETTE: And and at the end of the day, to remember that the things that are being canceled are not life-altering, right? I mean, yes, it's a bummer, but it is not life-altering.
MCINTOSH: I think what we're seeing now is that these cancellations are going to start to have an economic impact. So I don't want to minimize that element of it, but it is it's yeah, it's an inconvenience that oh, 2020 was the year that we didn't have March Madness. So, you know, ten years from now we're or it's going to be an anomaly. So I think we do have to keep that in perspective. If we start seeing economic fallout from it, then I think we should be worried about it.

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Samantha Wright is a news reporter and producer for Idaho Matters.