Though no coronavirus (COVID-19) cases have yet been announced in Idaho, school and health systems across Blaine County are preparing for a potential community-level outbreak amid a worldwide pandemic that has so far resulted in over 3,250 deaths.
“While the individual risk for coronavirus in Idaho is still low, the situation is rapidly evolving and we do expect confirmed cases in Idaho at some point,” Gov. Brad Little wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
In light of the fear of coronavirus making its way into Idaho, St. Luke’s Health System began an incident command post system earlier this week.
According to Joy Prudek, public relations manager at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, the facility has been inundated with concerned citizens calling to inquire on procedures or to complain about someone they believe is infected and hasn’t been properly tested. Prudek added that each facility has been meeting daily to confer and disseminate information, and the hospital has a “robust” team in place with thorough systems and procedures that are drilled regularly to ensure effectiveness.
South Central Public Health District Public Information Officer Brianna Bodily said Thursday that there are currently no reported coronavirus cases in Health District 5, which includes Blaine County, and no one is being monitored for the virus.
Bodily stressed that anyone who has reason to believe they might have COVID-19, should call their doctor.
“Their health care provider should contact Public Health from there,”Bodily said.
If active monitoring or quarantine becomes necessary, Bodily said, the Health District will first use video conferencing to contact patients.
According to Health District Family and Children’s Health Division Administrator Logan Hudson, there’s no reason to panic.
“We are prepared to fight COVID-19 if it enters Idaho, and the best way to prepare is to do the same things we recommend every cold and flu season: Cover your cough with a tissue or your elbow, stay home when you are sick and wash your hands frequently,” he said in a Thursday email. “Exercise, fresh air and a healthy diet will also help protect you.”
Officials at the Friedman Memorial Airport and Blaine County School District are also reviewing coronavirus updates from the CDC and South Central Public Health District.
The School District has protocols in place for infectious disease monitoring and response, according to district spokeswoman Heather Crocker, and will use its mass notification system, Skylert, to alert parents of developments.
“BCSD is prepared with contingency plans if school closures become necessary,” a district press release stated.
At Friedman Memorial Airport, passengers are not currently being screened for symptoms of the virus—the airport is not one of the nearly two dozen airports that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as “high risk” for coronavirus transmission—but officials are encouraging good personal hygiene.
“We urge travelers to follow CDC guidance and take reasonable precautions for your health, and the health of the valley,” the airport said in a statement on Wednesday.
One tip suggested on the Friedman website is traveling with disinfectant wipes to clean “high-touch” surfaces on commercial aircraft, such as armrests and seatback trays.
“We’re being a bit more vigilant than usual, practicing proactive hygiene techniques—we have hand sanitizer stations scattered throughout the airport—and telling our workers not to come in if they’re sick,” Airport Manager Chris Pomeroy said in an interview.
Travelers who want to alter their flight plans due to coronavirus concerns should contact their airline directly, as some carriers, including Delta, Alaska and United Airlines, are waiving fees. Pomeroy wasn’t aware of many passengers who have canceled or rescheduled upcoming trips.
“Our station managers haven’t seen a reduction in flight loads,” he said. “Everything is still high-capacity at this point, and we expect it to stay that way.”
Former Hailey Mayor and Airport Authority board member Fritz Haemmerle stressed on Tuesday that panicking about the virus could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“We’ve seen viruses come and go. The more we talk about this one, the more effect it will have on the economy,” he said. “These kinds of discussions don’t help.”
Atkinsons’ cashier Susana Valdivia reported similar sentiment from her line but said customers’ purchases have told a different story.
“People are generally trying to keep a positive attitude, but when you look at what they’re buying—cans, bleach, rubbing alcohol, gallons of bottled water and Clorox—they’re clearly freaked out,” she said. “I’ve had customers tell me ‘it’s not going to happen here,’ but their actions have spoken louder. We’re out of hand sanitizer almost every day.”
There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Idaho yet—but state health officials say it’s only a matter of time before it spreads to the Gem State, especially with confirmed cases in neighboring Washington.
“We know that we can’t stop it at this point,” State Epidemiologist Christine Hahn said in a press conference with the governor and state health officials Wednesday. “It’s too late for that. What we can do is slow this virus down.”
Idaho Department of Health & Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen urged Idahoans to wash their hands regularly, stay home if sick and cover their coughs and sneezes.
At the same press conference, Gov. Brad Little announced a new coronavirus task force consisting of state officials and medical professionals: Jeppesen, Idaho Hospital Association President Brian Whitlock, North Central Public Health District Director Carol Moehrle and Idaho Office of Emergency Management Director Brad Richy.
Dr. Carolyn Bridges—a retired CDC public health physician with experience in influenza pandemic planning and response—is also joining the governor’s working group, along with former St. Luke’s Health System President and CEO Dr. David Pate and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.
The state has been monitoring the coronavirus situation since early January, Jeppsen said. A statewide public health plan was put into full action Jan. 27.
Meanwhile, Little said, he has asked his budget office to work with the Legislature to make funds available to aid response efforts if necessary. Those talks are underway now.
Idaho currently has the capacity to test about 15 people per day for the virus, Hahn said. The state had results on six patients—all of which tested negative for the virus—as of Wednesday morning. Because the number of test kits is limited, the state has been prioritizing the most high-risk patients, Hahn said.
Updates from the coronavirus task force will be provided to the public and the media as needed, according to the state’s coronavirus website, coronavirus.idaho.gov, which includes contact numbers for every health district in the state.
Closer to home, Visit Sun Valley, the marketing organization for Ketchum, Sun Valley and the Wood River Valley, will hold an invitation-only meeting today with local organizations to discuss monitoring measures and communication resources, according to Executive Director Scott Fortner.
This story was updated with new information from the South Central Public Health District.