Gov. Brad Little offered a grim forecast on Thursday for the state’s health-care system should COVID-19 continue to spread at the same rate in Idaho, with hospitals approaching the point of needing to ration care.

Despite that, the governor declined to implement any additional safety restrictions, such as a statewide requirement that people must wear face coverings while in public, saying in a press conference that he believed compliance with such an order would be low outside of the Boise area.

“What I need is compliance,” Little said in response to questions from reporters about a potential mask mandate. “And I firmly believe that compliance will be better if your local school board or health board or county commissioner or mayor advocates for it.”

In the same press conference, Little warned that the state will be forced to activate Crisis Standards of Care—an emergency medical protocol that’s usually reserved for natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods—if Idaho’s health-care system becomes overwhelmed due to COVID-19. Under Crisis Standards of Care, Little said, victims of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and other health emergencies may not get the same quality of care as they normally would. Some patients may not be able to get a hospital bed, while others may have to wait longer for paramedics to arrive at their home.

“The vast majority of Idaho’s hospitals are being pushed to their limits,” Little said. When asked by a reporter how soon Idaho might have to activate Crisis Standards of Care—whether a matter of days, weeks or months—Little said he did not know.

In the press conference and in a simultaneous news release, the governor highlighted steps the state has taken since the start of the pandemic to expand health-care capacity, such as providing hospitals with protective equipment, increasing lab testing capacity, rolling back regulations on telehealth and medical licensing, and activating the Idaho National Guard.

“It would be hard for anyone to say the state of Idaho has not done everything we can to prepare our hospitals and elevate capacity,” Little said.

When asked why he has declined to is-sue a statewide mask mandate, Little said he did not believe such a mandate would be effective.

“Frankly, with orders coming from Boise, compliance dwindles significantly the further it gets away from the Treasure Valley here,” Little said.

He echoed a similar sentiment when asked whether he would consider issuing a mandate to take pressure off of local government officials, some of whom have been subject to harassment for advocating for local mask requirements. Earlier this week, Idaho made national headlines when a Central Public Health District meeting was ended after protesters showed up to board members’ homes.

“If the decision point for me was, ‘I take the heat rather than the rest of them,’ I would do it,” Little said. “The decision point for me is how do I get compliance.”

Thirty-seven states—including Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington—have implemented some form of a mask requirement. Blaine County and four of its cities—Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue—have had mask requirements in place since July. A number of other cities, counties and public health districts across the state have also implemented their own mandates, though the South Central Public Health District and the city of Twin Falls have not.

Also on Thursday, Little announced that Idaho would remain in a modified version of Stage 2 of the governor’s economic re-bound plan. Under the order, gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited and bars and restaurants must operate in a seating-only capacity.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 2,298 new confirmed and pro bable cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, registering a new record single-day increase for the second day in a row. Wednesday’s surge brought the total to 116,203, of which health officials continued to monitor an estimated 70,289 active cases. The state reported 29 new coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday. The virus is considered a contributing factor in the deaths of 1,103 Idahoans. Between Dec. 1 and Dec. 9, the virus had killed 143 residents, meaning roughly 13 percent of the state’s total death toll had come in the first nine days of the month. On Thursday, the health department confirmed that COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in Idaho in November.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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