BOISE — Idaho has reached record-high numbers of new coronavirus cases this week, and Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday that the state must stay in Stage 4 of his reopening plan once more and urged people to behave responsibly to slow the spread.
Little continued to encourage Idahoans to wear masks and practice social distancing, rather than moving to implement stricter measures statewide.
He said the state’s rising coronavirus case count has a direct impact on Idaho’s health care facilities and workers. The more coronavirus patients hospitalized, the less access others will have for essential medical treatment.
“Our personal actions work better to slow the spread of coronavirus than anything else,” Little said. “This is about personal responsibility, something Idaho is all about.”
The decision to stay in Stage 4 was made after Idaho failed to meet the state’s full reopening criteria for the ninth time in a row. On Tuesday, Idaho marked a record-high number of newly confirmed coronavirus cases in Idaho, with 714 in one day.
The state also broke records for new total cases, including probables, with 798, and the seven-day case average rose to 627.7. Idaho’s seven public health districts reported a combined 474 new confirmed and 154 new probable cases on Wednesday, for a total of 628.
Even as Idaho remains in Stage 4, nearly every business is allowed to be open, and there are almost no mandatory restrictions on how they should operate, per the governor’s Idaho Rebounds plan.
Ada County will remain in Stage 3, per order of Central District Health. Ada County does have some restrictions on how bars and nightclubs may operate, and has put a limit on gatherings of more than 50 people. Ada County’s caseload has been increasing to the point where it’s averaging more than 100 per day.
Despite the increase in cases and White House recommendations, Little has not implemented a statewide mask mandate or other stricter measures. Some cities and counties, however, have mandated mask wearing in communities, including in Eastern Idaho, which is experiencing a big outbreak despite its modest population.
Little has repeatedly said he will defer decisions on masks and other requirements to local health districts.
When asked why the state hasn’t implemented things such as fines for violating local guidelines or a statewide mask mandate, Little pointed to counties or health districts with those measures in place, saying that local control is a better way to approach it.
“I would say a lot of the recommendations are working,” Little said.
Hospitals and health care providers have been outspoken about their concerns this week with coronavirus hospitalization rates. Additionally, health care workers said they have seen children and young adults hospitalized with serious complications because of COVID-19.
On Oct. 6, the state reported its youngest yet COVID-19 fatality — a Twin Falls County man in his 20s.
COVID-19 in Idaho schools
Ada County school districts were placed back into the “red” zone by Central District Health this week, because of a high risk of community transmission.
The West Ada School District, Boise School District, Emmett School District and many others have struggled to stop the spread of the virus while providing some in-person learning. Two trustees, one in West Ada and one in Boise, have resigned amid controversial disputes about how to move forward — although the West Ada trustee apparently just resigned his chairmanship while keeping his seat.
Little has repeatedly said that he hopes schools will open for in-person learning, if possible. The decision to open is left to the school districts, not the state.
He said Thursday that the state will continue to supply schools with what they need to combat spread of the virus, whether that’s accurate data, personal protective equipment or something else.
Little pointed toward schools in the West Ada School District — the state’s most populous school district — saying some have zero reported cases.
However, West Ada administrators said in a meeting earlier this week that the state health department’s building-by-building coronavirus tallies are not always accurate.
Since the pandemic began, West Ada has not released coronavirus numbers to the public, claiming it would violate federal privacy laws, though schools do not qualify for the protection cited by the district.
More recently, the district discussed in a meeting the possibility of providing a public dashboard of cases, but the board later said it had no plans to provide case numbers by school.
West Ada and Boise both plan to have in-person learning on Monday despite the move to the “red” category, which is the highest risk. The West Ada Education Association is urging its teachers to call in sick Monday to protest the move.
Kimberly Link, communicable disease control manager for Central District Health, said at a Tuesday board meeting that schools have seen infection and community transmission, and said the virus has affected more than 35 schools. About 25 percent of the cases in Ada County have no known source of transmission.
During the meeting, the Board of Health stated that most cases coming out of Boise State University were students contracting the virus at social gatherings, not while in class.
Coronavirus hot spots in Idaho
Hot spots can still be found in Idaho outside of populated areas, especially in areas of eastern and southeastern Idaho.
Jordan Hurget, CEO of the Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, joined Little at the Thursday press conference and echoed much of the governor’s sentiments, encouraging those to take personal measures to limit the spread of the virus.
Hurget said that his hospital’s ICU has been at 65%-85% capacity depending on the day, adding that the spread of the virus in the community negatively affects health care workers, which can directly impact the hospital’s capacity.
Hospitals in Idaho Falls are being strained as the rise in COVID-19 cases has led to a rise in hospitalizations in the region. As of Wednesday, 34 people were hospitalized within the boundaries of Eastern Idaho Public Health.
Fourteen hospitals in southern and southeastern Idaho issued a joint statement Thursday saying:
“Hospitals throughout the region are experiencing the highest number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 ever seen throughout the pandemic. This is placing a significant strain on hospital resources. Health care workers are the most valuable asset in the health care system, even more so than bed availability. ... We are asking our communities to practice the personal responsibility behaviors that science has indicated will reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
Madison County, home to Brigham Young University-Idaho, has documented a major rise in coronavirus cases.
On Monday, BYU-I administrators had to send a message to students after learning that some might be intentionally trying to get coronavirus so they could sell their plasma with the COVID-19 antibody. The statement said students who do this “will be immediately suspended from the university and may be permanently dismissed.”
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