BOISE — Idaho will move into the fourth and final stage for reopening the economy on Saturday, but officials offered a stern warning for residents as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Gov. Brad Little announced the decision at a Wednesday press conference. The new guidelines allow for the opening of large venues and gatherings of more than 50 people.
Little said the state almost did not meet the criteria to advance.
“We almost did not make it to Stage 4 this week,” he said. “Despite our incredible progress, there are still some in Idaho who are not practicing measures to keep themselves and others safe.”
Little said people need to continue wearing masks, washing their hands and practicing social distancing.
At the time of Wednesday’s announcement, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 3,260 positive or probable cases of the virus and 85 deaths. Community spread has been found in 24 of 44 counties.
State epidemiologist Christine Hahn said Idaho met the criteria to reopen but called the state’s progress concerning.
“We feel like we kind of squeaked under on this one,” she said. “We urge people to remember that to keep our economy open, we all need to do our part. The disease is still here. It continues to circulate in our state.”
The state needed to demonstrate a downward trend in daily cases in order to move on to Stage 4. There were 41% more new cases between May 27 and June 9 than in the previous two-week period. Additionally, the 14-day rolling average rose steadily over the last four weeks, from about 24.3 cases per day on May 13 to 37.2 on June 9. Many of those cases were concentrated in the Magic Valley.
To determine the direction of new cases in the state, however, officials examined data only within the current two-week period using a fitted-line approach — a statistical model that attempts to predict the trend in data. With this model, Hahn described new case totals as “barely trending downward.”
The actual direction of the case totals has been widely questioned, but regardless, Little’s reopening protocol allows that criteria to be outweighed if the state sees a downward trend in positive tests or a daily positive rate below 5% — both of which were met.
Between May 24 and June 6, the state completed 19,271 tests, a 44% increase from the previous two weeks. Of those tests, 2.5% came back positive, down from 3.5% from the previous two weeks. Hahn said that surge in testing could explain the rise in new cases.
The biggest concern is the number of health care workers who have tested positive, Hahn said. Between May 27 and June 9, the state reported 28 positives among health care workers — an average of two per day. Hahn acknowledged the state failed to meet that criteria, which required the rate to be at less than two positives per day.
The state met other criteria related to maintaining ventilator and ICU capacity, and a downward trend in the number of emergency room visits for COVID patients.
“Our goal all along was to meet these,” Little said of the criteria. “We made it but we’re not spiking the football.”
All businesses may open
Little said “100%” of businesses will be allowed to open under Stage 4.
Gatherings of any size can occur as long as there are appropriate social distancing measures in place.
Large venues, including stadiums and arenas, are now able to open. Nightclubs may open with standing-room only.
Employers can resume unrestricted staffing on worksites but should practice physical distancing, personal protections and sanitation to protect workers. Telework is still encouraged. Special accommodations for individuals at higher risk for severe illness should be made.
Travel can continue to locations that have no significant ongoing virus transmission.
Visits to senior living facilities and other similar facilities can resume with strict protocols to protect residents and workers. The Department of Health and Welfare recently reported 289 cases at 25 care facilities in Idaho, including many in the Magic Valley.
Little stressed that an economic rebound is only possible if people continue to be vigilant in their response to the virus.
“At this point in time, it is really critical that everybody in Idaho be part of this team to modify their behavior,” Little said. “It is dependent upon each and every one to practice that good behavior, so that we can manage this until we either get a good therapeutic or a vaccine.”
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