Citing a growing strain on hospitals, Gov. Brad Little on Monday moved Idaho into a modified version of Stage 3 of the Idaho Rebounds coronavirus response plan, implementing more restrictive measures to bring case counts down. 

A statewide health order signed by the governor Monday includes limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, certain safety requirements for long-term care facilities and a seating-only policy at bars, restaurants and nightclubs. It does not include a statewide mask mandate, a measure that some health officials have called for. The health order went into effect at 12 a.m. Tuesday. 

“Idaho is at a critical juncture,” Little said in a media conference at the Capitol in Boise. “This is unacceptable and we must do more.” 

Idaho had been in Stage 4—with less restrictive protocols for Idaho residents and businesses—since June 13. The stage was initially planned to last two weeks but has been extended in two-week increments since then. 

Since lifting a statewide stay-at-home order at the beginning of May, Little has repeatedly said he believes a localized approach is the best way for Idaho to address the virus, with local public officials and public health districts determining safety measures and restrictions. 

“I want to be very clear about something. The localized approach is still my desired approach in protecting lives and our economy,” Little said Monday. 

However, Little’s office noted in a news release, the localized approach “has not worked as well as it should because the virus is relentless and in some parts of the state there simply have been insufficient efforts by local health boards, mayors and county commissioners to protect lives.” 

Idaho in recent days has recorded soaring coronavirus case numbers and vastly increased COVID-related hospitalizations. As of Monday night, there had been 60,041 total confirmed and probable coronavirus cases statewide—including 580 deaths—with 697 new cases reported that day. With the exception of Camas County, all counties in the South Central Public Health District—which includes Blaine County, Lincoln County, Twin Falls County and five others—were at the red risk level, indicating “critical” risk. 

“Hospitals throughout the state are quickly filling up or are already full with COVID-19 patients and other patients, and way too many health-care workers are out sick with COVID-19,” Little said in the news release. 

Under the new statewide health order:

  • Indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people.  
  • Outdoor gatherings are limited to 25 percent capacity.  
  • Physical distancing requirements—staying 6 feet apart from people not in one’s household—are in place for gatherings of all types.  
  • Long-term care facilities will not be allowed to operate without requiring masks on their premises.   
  • There will be seating only—no standing or mingling—at bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Nightclubs can only operate as bars.  
  • Employers should continue to protect at-risk employees by allowing remote work or by making special accommodations for them in the workplace.  
  • All individuals and businesses should follow recommended protocols for minimizing transmission of the virus—as outlined on—including washing hands, wearing face coverings in public and staying home if sick.  

The return to Stage 3 “doesn’t mean our economy is on lockdown,” Little said at the Capitol. “Our economy will remain open.” 

Travel into and out of the state will not be restricted under the new health order, Little said, and in-person church services are still allowed to take place. 

The governor on Monday also encouraged schools to stay open for in-person classes when possible, rather than switching to online remote learning.  

“We must continue to prioritize safe, in-person learning for students across Idaho,” Little said.

On Tuesday, Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly issued a statement responding to Little’s call for schools to stay open for in-person learning, in which McInelly said that “the lack of accountability related to testing, tracing and transparency remains a major concern” in Idaho schools.

“Local districts and communities have all the responsibility to follow the advice of medical professionals and safety protocols,” McInelly said. “The degree to which they have resources such as physical space, PPE, and testing should determine the degree of remote learning—not political pressure. We hope true partnerships between educators and administrators eclipses politics and develops one set of rules for how schools can operate safely.”

Local regulations that are more restrictive than the state’s Stage 3 restrictions will remain in effect, the governor noted. 

“I sincerely hope that some people have finally passed the point of thinking the pandemic is not real or not a big deal, or that their personal actions don’t really affect anything,” Little said in the news release. “We have seen the direct impact between rising case numbers in our communities and the overwhelming impacts on our health-care system—something that affects all of us, whether we have COVID or not.” 

In taking questions from the press, Little was asked why the state’s health order does not include a statewide mask mandate, which would require masks in all counties, not just jurisdictions that have adopted local mask mandates. Last week, the governing board of the South Central Public Health District declined to implement a mask mandate for the region, instead asking the governor to implement a statewide order.

Little stood firm that he believes it is preferable that orders are issued by local governing entities. 

“That’s their job,” he said. 

Numbers surge, regional hospital under stress

Meanwhile, Blaine County remains in the “critical” risk category for coronavirus, based on data assessed last Thursday through the county’s risk model. The latest assessment on Oct. 22 used data from Oct. 11-17. 

The rate of positive coronavirus tests in the county was 11.6 percent over the seven-day period. The number of new daily cases per 100,000 residents, based on a seven-day average, was 33.5. Both of those figures meet the criteria of the “critical” risk category, the highest of the four categories in the model.  

In Blaine County, seven new cases were recorded last weekend. There have been 820 confirmed and 41 probable cases recorded in the county since the beginning of the pandemic in March, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported. 

Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s in the Magic Valley, Jerome and Wood River Valley, said in an interview Tuesday that significant increases in the number of coronavirus cases has resulted in a corresponding increase in hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19 illnesses. Some 35 percent of all COVID cases recorded in the South Central Public Health District region have come in the past three weeks, he noted, calling the number of hospitalizations in the Magic Valley “shocking.” 

“I have dramatic concerns that we continue to set new highs for patients,” he said. 

At St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, at least one COVID-19 patient was being treated at the hospital from Oct. 23-26, after long periods over the summer with no COVID patients. The number of hospitalizations has been significantly more pronounced at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, where 51 COVID-19 patients were being treated on Monday. 

Kern said the number of patients in the intensive care unit at the Twin Falls hospital on Monday, at 15, was more than twice the normal number. Nurses are working extra shifts, he said, and doctors are faced with having to see some 20 percent more patients than they normally would. The cardio-pulmonary unit of the hospital is at 97 percent capacity, he said. 

As a result of the pressure being put on hospital capacity and hospital staff, some Twin Falls pediatric patients have been moved to other facilities, some medical patients have been transferred to Boise and elective medical procedures that would require admission to the hospital are being delayed. 

“The burden of it is great,” Kern said. 

With colder weather—prompting people to spend more time indoors—and flu season approaching, amid the already steady rate of coronavirus cases in the region, Kern said he has wondered “when it will ever end.” 

However, following basic mitigation measures—particularly wearing masks—can slow the spread of the virus, Kern said, and could, hopefully, slow the current surge. 

In his address Monday in Boise, Little offered a similar message. 

“I hope and pray people will do the right thing,” he said.

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