BOISE — With the coronavirus pandemic rapidly worsening in Idaho, Gov. Brad Little on Monday announced that the state will go backward and re-enter Stage 3 of its Idaho Rebounds plan, with a few modifications.
The main repercussion of this move is that the limit on indoor gatherings reverts to 50 people or less, and outdoor gatherings will be limited to 25% capacity.
“Last week, things changed for the worst,” Little said. “Idaho is at a critical juncture. This is unacceptable and we must do better. “
In-person church services may continue, travel is not restricted and businesses may remain open, the governor said, and school decisions still will be made at the local level.
Little announced the move during a news conference at the Idaho Statehouse, saying the state’s health care systems face an alarming demand.
“Hospitals throughout the state are quickly filling up or are already full with COVID-19 patients and other patients, and way too many health care workers are out sick with COVID-19,” Little said.
In Stage 3, larger venues can’t really be open for big events, so the move could affect some activities outside of Ada County, which has been in Stage 3 for a while. Bars may remain open as long as they meet safety and gathering protocols, including table seating only.
Little has repeatedly emphasized that Idahoans should practice personal responsibility during the pandemic. He has resisted implementing far-reaching orders such as a statewide mask mandate, instead leaving those decisions to local authorities, including public health districts.
However, that approach has not yielded results. Coronavirus cases in Idaho have increased dramatically in the past month, as the state’s seven-day moving average was nearly 890 new daily cases as of Sunday. That seven-day moving average was 481.3 on Oct. 1.
“I sincerely hope that some people have finally passed the point of thinking the pandemic is not real or not a big deal,” Little said.
Idaho’s hospitalization rate has increased, as the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare last reported that 259 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized. The uptick has strained hospital resources throughout the state, especially in the Magic Valley and eastern Idaho.
Dr. Andrew Wilper, chief of staff for the Boise VA Medical Center, spoke at the press conference, saying his staff and hospital are at risk of not being able to serve veterans. When staff are sick or quarantined, clinics might have to close.
Wilper said the veterans he treats have risked their lives for their country, and now they need us. Wilper asked everyone to wear a mask. He said more people have died of the coroanvirus than the past five flu seasons combined, and soon the country might surpass the number of combat deaths recorded in World War II.
The spreading infection puts VA employees at risk, he said. The VA is working to identify out-of-state health care workers who can support the Idaho location’s staff.
“We are in a battle with COVID-19 and we cannot surrender to this virus,” Wilper said. “In Idaho we must recognize that our actions or lack of action will result in the infection and death of our countrymen. Our veterans sacrificed for our country.”
Wilper passionately defended his patients, many of whom are now elderly.
“We live in a country where you can choose whether to wear a mask because someone was willing to die for you to have that freedom,” he said. “That same person who helped to protect that right needs your help protecting them. They need you to choose to do the thing that may be uncomfortable for you. They need you to do the thing that may be an inconvenient burden for your life. But do not mistake an inconvenience for oppression.”
As of Sunday, 569 Idahoans have died from COVID-19-related causes. The nationwide death toll exceeds 225,000.
St. Luke’s Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. Joshua Kern also spoke at the press conference, encouraging people to remember that medical staff are “your neighbors,” and they are dealing with the fallout of this deadly and dangerous pandemic.
“We are reaching a critical tipping point,” Kern said. “The number of people hospitalized has reached a new high.”
Kern focused on some of the false claims made about the virus, such as people alleging that they are not going to die of COVID-19 and that it’s no big deal.
“The reality is, it does not discriminate, we do see patients in their 30s and 40s,” Kern said.
The new order does not affect schools, and Little said it does not mean everyone should go to full remote learning. School decisions have been left to the local boards.
“We put millions of dollars and substantial effort toward the safe operation of schools to ensure they are safe places to learn and work,” Little said. “... We must continue to prioritize safe in-person learning for students across Idaho.”
COVID-19 spread worsens
On Sunday, Idaho again set a record seven-day moving average, surging to a daily case rate of 889.14 over the past week. The state has consistently broken its record 12 days in a row amid a surge of new cases and hospitalizations.
At least one hospital, St. Luke’s Magic Valley in Twin Falls, has had to change policy because of the excessive number of coronavirus patients hospitalized. Last week, St. Luke’s said children who need hospitalization would be transferred to St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital in Boise. Current patients will remain in the Magic Valley, and the hospital will continue admitting newborns to the NICU.
Coeur d’Alene’s Kootenai Health said Wednesday that it was at 99% capacity as coronavirus cases and the number of patients requiring hospitalizations spiked in North Idaho, according to the Coeur d’Alene Press. Officials in the area said last week that they feared the hospital could become overwhelmed.
Despite that, on Thursday, the Panhandle Health District’s Board of Health voted 4-3 to end the mask mandate in place for Kootenai County. The Coeur d’Alene City Council then passed a mask mandate for the city during a meeting Monday afternoon.