Idaho View: If Idahoans don’t voluntarily comply with COVID-19 guidelines, enforcement is the only option
IDAHO VIEW

Idaho View: If Idahoans don’t voluntarily comply with COVID-19 guidelines, enforcement is the only option

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Gov. Little talks Idaho rebound

Gov. Brad Little speaks to city officials and the media about opening back up businesses around the state Friday, May 1, 2020, at Rudy's - A Cook's Paradise in downtown Twin Falls.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little just pushed Idaho into Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, but truthfully, Little is between a rock and a hard place.

The hard place is that Little has constituents who are still saying that coronavirus is a hoax, that COVID-19 isn’t that bad and that stay-home orders are tyrannical, unconstitutional and the equivalent of Nazi Germany.

Armed protests, open defiance and a guest opinion piece from Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin telling government to get out of the way all suggest a simmering insurgency that threatens to boil over if Little clamps down too tight.

But the immovable rock is a legitimate threat of a full-blown health crisis. The majority of Idahoans and business owners have taken all of this seriously and are continuing to do so — even to the point that some are not reopening when their stage comes, but waiting longer to make sure they have every precaution in place.

Those Idahoans are practicing what Little on Thursday called “Idaho common sense.”

“A good dose of Idaho common sense is what’s required here,” Little said during a live-streamed press conference.

Little has repeatedly said that he would rather rely on peer pressure and education to maintain guidelines, rather than enforcement by authorities. Although he said businesses that open outside the parameters of the plan risk losing their licenses, Little has maintained a hands-off approach.

This balancing act has worked so far, but as we move into Stage 2, we have concerns.

There will be more and more pressure on businesses to start opening before they’re supposed to. The businesses in Idaho City all decided to reopen on May 1. A Meridian hair salon reopened last week. A Nampa bar opened, with the message, “We truly do not care if you disagree.”

Without real enforcement, we’re likely to see more of this.

When asked by Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News whether he was contemplating any action against schools holding in-person graduation ceremonies in violation of the order, Little simply said, “No, next question.”

As we see more and more of these acts of defiance, we’re certain to see a spike in cases. How much of a spike will depend on how many violators we have.

Let’s look at just one such act of defiance.

A food processing plant in Weiser shut down this week when at least seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a family gathering of at least 30 people, including some from Utah.

Here’s the real problem: The food processing factory, Fry Foods, wasn’t approved to test all 260 employees at the Weiser facility — only about 50 or 60 who likely came in contact with the employees who tested positive. Other employees were able to get tested on their own.

Testing is a crucial piece of the puzzle to stopping a widespread outbreak. Without testing the other 200 or so employees, how are we to know whether they became infected? To have 200 possibly infected people continue to go about their business, go to the barber or salon, or go to a restaurant, as we said in an earlier editorial, is a recipe for disaster.

Even if Idaho were to have more robust testing, the state is still working on ramping up its contact tracing efforts.

State Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Thursday that the state is hiring and training 255 tracers, which is a good start. A new Harvard report out this week suggests Idaho will need more like 500-550 tracers, Jeppesen said.

The governor up until now has simply relied on a majority of business owners and residents — people who luckily are not in line with the right wing of his party — to model appropriate behavior. He has given orders of closure, but he has made clear that violating those orders will not result not in punishment. Instead, he’ll continue to say Idaho is doing just fine policing itself. He probably never had any intention of penalizing places that did not comply.

And to be fair, it would be a very tough decision to make examples of businesses and penalize them. And yes, it would cause even more of an uproar from the far-right fringe. But it’s also, as the governor has said himself, completely unfair and disrespectful for those places to open and flout legal orders, safety concerns, social distancing, etc. So why shouldn’t they be penalized?

Moving into Stage 2 is not a free-for-all license to go back to business as usual. As restrictions ease, we’re bound to see a mild spike in cases. Further defying restrictions and going beyond the limits of Stage 2 could cause a more serious spike in cases and, unfortunately, deaths.

Little’s approach so far has allowed him to thread the needle.

But the space between that rock and a hard place is closing, and becoming harder to navigate. Without voluntary compliance, enforcement is Little’s only remaining option.

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Idaho’s structure of electing governors and LG’s completely separately — different from many states which bind them together — allows for the office holders to come from different points of view.

For future historians and artists who'll chronicle today's health and economic crisis, one humble item will stand out as the chief cultural emblem of the times: wearing a mask. Or not.

A small outbreak of coronavirus at a Fry Foods plant in Weiser gives a prime example of the importance of testing for COVID-19. More than that, it represents a warning shot across the bow of potential pitfalls if we don’t reopen our economy the right way.

As we tiptoe through Stage 2 of Gov. Brad Little’s phased reopening plan and approach a more robust Stage 3, it’s going to become even more important that we take the necessary steps to prevent future outbreaks.

And there will be future outbreaks.

The fact remains that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still out there. It’s ready to strike again, and without a vaccine, it remains a potentially destructive and fatal disease.

Aggressive and quick testing remains one of the key elements — perhaps the most important element — of controlling outbreaks at this point.

Fry Foods offers an early case study.

The Weiser food processing plant employs 260 people to make onion rings and other food products. It shut down earlier this month when at least seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fry Foods initially didn’t test all 260 employees at the Weiser facility — only the 50 or 60 who likely came in contact with the employees who tested positive. Other employees were able to get tested on their own.

The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories (state run-laboratories) tested all that they had the capacity to do in one day, according to Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state lab can do about has a testing capacity of approximately 200 tests per day.

“We are not prepared to handle this,” Doug Wold, human resources manager for Fry Foods, told the Idaho Statesman, referring to the lack of coordinated response. “If you don’t have an employer who’s willing to be proactive, we’re just going to fail.”

Fortunately, Crush the Curve Idaho, a private, business-led initiative established during the outbreak to increase testing, stepped in and tested every employee at Fry Foods.

By Tuesday of this week, 20 employees — about 8% of the plant’s workforce — had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least two of their family members. Nearly all were asymptomatic.

RAPID-RESPONSE TESTING

That’s what needs to happen: rapid-response testing. If you have an outbreak at your workplace, get everyone tested. For those who test positive, keep them home and isolated. For those who test negative, they can keep on working and you’re back in business.

When the outbreak hit Fry Foods, company officials made the decision to shut the plant down.

Without adequate testing, that’s unfortunately the right thing to do. Without testing, you have no idea whether you have seven infected employees, 70 or 270.

We applaud Fry Foods company officials for making the tough call to shut down, even though they were given the green light by the Southwest District Health Department to resume operations.

Coronavirus is stealthy. A person can carry coronavirus longer without symptoms, potentially spreading to others unwittingly. Some people who carry coronavirus have no symptoms at all.

We are encouraged that Crush the Curve Idaho stepped up and stepped in here.

But Idaho needs a more concerted and organized plan to do rapid-response testing.

We are a fragmented health system. Health providers include Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s, Primary Health, Saltzer, among others. Then think about all the entities who pay for health care: Blue Cross of Idaho, Regence BlueShield, PacificSource, SelectHealth, etc. Throw in Medicare, Medicaid and those who are uninsured.

Even our own government health management system is fragmented, with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and seven independent health districts not operated by the state.

And, in the case of Fry Foods, situated in a city bordering Oregon, workers were from two states.

NO COORIDINATED EFFORTS

No wonder Fry Foods officials were at a loss for where to turn for help. Without some sort of coordinated effort to test all employees and somehow pay for those tests, shutting down the plant was the best option.

It’s worth noting that the Fry Foods employee who initially had coronavirus was at a family gathering of a larger number than outlined in the governor’s reopening plan and was with visitors from out of state, two violations of the governor’s guidelines. That’s why we have the guidelines, and that’s why it’s important to follow the guidelines. Otherwise, this is what you get: an outbreak that shuts down an entire food manufacturing plant.

Unfortunately, shutting down operations every time there’s an outbreak is not going to get the job done.

And there will be more outbreaks as we reopen our economy, reopen factories and workplaces.

Idaho has a lot to be optimistic about, and we have a golden opportunity to lead the nation in reopening our economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We have had relatively few cases (around 2,300) and few deaths (77). Our early efforts to shut down parts of our social interactions and Little’s quick call to issue a statewide stay-home order clearly have paid off. Idahoans’ adherence to the stay-home order has helped to flatten the curve and control the number of new cases. Residents and businesses, alike, have done their part to make this happen.

Our hope is that Idaho can chug along through the stages of reopening. Our fear is that if we don’t do this the right way, we’ll have a surge and we’ll be back to a statewide stay-home order. Nobody wants that.

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