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Health district moves 6 counties into critical red category as virus spreads

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St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center

St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center is shown at sun up on Oct. 19 in Twin Falls.

TWIN FALLS — With the coronavirus spreading rampant through the Magic Valley and overwhelming hospitals, the South Central Public Health District during a Thursday press conference put six of the region’s eight counties in the “red” level, indicating critical risk.

The red counties are Twin Falls, Jerome, Cassia, Minidoka, Lincoln and Gooding. Camas County is in the high risk orange category and Blaine County uses a different system.

Moving into red doesn’t automatically trigger any new enforcement actions. The designation merely provides a set of guidelines. In the red stage, local governments or the South Central Public Health District Board may consider mask mandates, issue stay-at-home orders or enforce other protective measures.

The Twin Falls School District decided in July that all in-person classes and extracurricular activities would stop following a red designation. The district board is holding a special meeting Friday morning to consider whether or not to move to virtual classes.

The situation is dire, said Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s Magic Valley facilities. There were 50 COVID-19 patients in the Twin Falls hospital Thursday, making up a quarter of all admissions. Incoming patients are frequently being diverted elsewhere because Twin Falls doesn’t have enough healthy nurses and doctors to take care of them.

But diverting patients elsewhere isn’t a sustainable option, Kern said. Boise’s hospitals are full, as are Salt Lake City’s.

“There’s virtually nowhere to send them at this point,” Kern said. “There’s not really a cavalry to come. We’re it.”

And Kern said the situation’s going to get significantly worse. The number of people getting sick hasn’t plateaued yet, so even more people will need to be hospitalized in the coming weeks.

The massive surge is also affecting businesses.

Dale Ducommun, general manager of Clif Bar’s Twin Falls facility, said during the press conference that the spike is hurting his bakery, which has lost $200,000 due to COVID-19. During October, about 20 employees per day have been out due to COVID-19, Ducommun said.

He added that no one has caught COVID-19 at the bakery itself. All infected employees have contracted the disease out in the community.

Most Magic Valley elected officials have said they will not implement mask mandates or other restrictive measures, despite the recommendations of local medical experts.

Twin Falls County Commissioner Brent Reinke, who represents the county on the health district board, said that hearing from hospital leaders Wednesday made it “difficult” to maintain his anti-mask position “because of the challenges and passion from Dr. Kern and those at the board meeting.” But he remained steadfast in his opposition to restrictive measures.

Twin Falls Mayor Suzanne Hawkins has given no indication that she’d be in favor of a mask mandate.

“If you make rules that don’t make sense to people, it’s harder to get compliance,” she said.

She also said that a mask mandate wouldn’t do much good.

“To put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound isn’t going to help,” she said, adding that if Twin Falls implemented a mandate everyone would just take their business to neighboring communities to avoid the restrictions.

The South Central Public Health District Board voted Wednesday to not institute a mask mandate despite the pleas of Magic Valley doctors. The board did vote to ask Gov. Brad Little to impose a statewide mandate and voted to restrict in-person, indoor gatherings to fifty people or fewer (with a handful of exemptions to that rule).

Few Magic Valley governments have taken any meaningful measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. The two counties that aren’t in the red category — Blaine and Camas counties — are the only ones that have implemented restrictions on either the city or county level.

Blaine County and all of its municipalities except Carey have instituted mask mandates, as has Fairfield in Camas County. Fairfield’s mask requirement was in response to a school outbreak. Those two counties are the only ones that didn’t set new highs for COVID-19 cases last week.


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