Jim Jones: A perfect distraction from the wretched coronavirus news
COMMENTARY

Jim Jones: A perfect distraction from the wretched coronavirus news

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A troubling piece of mail showed up in my mailbox on March 28 from the Republican Presidential Task Force. The envelope contained a “Strategy Survey,” which was essentially a Trump fundraising questionnaire. There were a number of loaded questions about various political issues in the presidential race. The one that caused particular concern was whether the recipient would support the President taking military action against Iran if it were to make or use a nuclear weapon.

First of all, it troubled me that war was being treated as a political policy choice. Would a positive response of more than 50% result in military action against Iran? Secondly, the question seemed to imply that military action might be an option in the run-up to the November election. Either possibility is unsettling.

The questionnaire came shortly after what was reportedly a tense debate in the White House over the Iran issue on March 19. Just as the coronavirus was starting to hit hard, Trump and his advisors were considering whether to ramp up action against Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo, a long-time advocate of regime change, was for it, while the military officials urged caution.

It is likely that Iran has played a part in some recent provocations in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of General Qasem Suleimani on January 3. That killing resulted from the death of an American contractor in Iraq that the U.S. blamed on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia, which triggered American attacks on the militia’s bases, which caused angry Iraqis to storm the American Embassy in Baghdad, which resulted in the strike on Suleimani.

The military was smart to urge caution in taking action against Iran. Iraqi officials have provided fairly strong evidence that the contractor was not killed by the Shiite militia. If that is true, the escalation that resulted in the present confrontation with Iran was a mistake. The attack occurred in an area where Islamic State insurgents have operated and could well have been a false flag operation—an attack intended to place blame on the wrong party. Why wouldn’t ISIS want the U.S. to attack their enemies, the Shiite militias? The situation in Iraq is complicated and it is risky to jump to conclusions.

What is fairly clear, however, is that the attacks against our forces in Iraq predictably increased after the President disavowed the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump appointees had certified that Iran was living up to its commitments under the agreement up until Trump breached it and re-imposed sanctions. The best way to keep Iran from making a nuclear weapon would be to reinstate the agreement. That would certainly reduce tensions and eliminate the need for the military action question on the Strategy Survey.

And, speaking about policy toward Iran, why not try to work out problems without choosing the military as the first option? Both countries have common concerns where cooperation is possible. We worked with General Suliemani to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9-11 attack, at least until President Bush declared Iran to be part of the Axis of Evil in January 2002. We worked with Shiite militias loyal to Suliemani to rid Iraq of ISIS insurgents in 2017.

There are things we could never agree upon, but cooperating where we can, and trying to reduce tension where we can’t, would be better than the present standoff. The two countries have had serious troubles in the past and there is lots of bad blood, but we need to be realists and try to work toward the future instead of dwelling on the past. When I recall safely walking on the streets of Hanoi two years ago and being warmly received by people whose parents I was trying to kill 50 years ago, I know it can be done.

Alas, just after finishing this column, I learned of Trump’s April Fool’s Day tweet: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed.” Perhaps this will provide a perfect distraction from the wretched coronavirus news.

The world in cartoons

Jones is an Eden native and former Idaho Attorney General and former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice. His previous opinion work can be found at JJCommontater.com.

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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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