Blaine County is Idaho’s canary in the coal mine. Yet, Gov. Brad Little is downplaying the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus and is stuffing his ears against the sound of the lessons learned in recent weeks in our hard-hit county.
Coal miners once used canaries in underground shafts to detect poisonous gases. If the canary sickened or died, miners had to get out fast.
With this virus, the poisonous gas is failure to act before, not after, the virus invades. It is to rank the economy higher than people’s lives.
After the first local case was confirmed and at the urging of local officials, the governor ordered local citizens to “shelter in place” and closed all but essential businesses. He declared a statewide emergency to get the state more money to deal with the virus. Both were good moves.
Yet, while cases continued to mount in Blaine County—36 as of Tuesday morning with an unknown number of tests still to yield results—Little has done nothing else to protect the rest of the state. No orders to limit the size of crowds. No social distancing order. No travel or business constraints.
Blaine County has more cases per thousand people than hotspot New York state. While New York has one case per thousand people, our county has 1.5 cases per thousand.
On Tuesday, Little’s new emergency measures were to roll back 125 administrative rules to improve health care access and increase the number of providers, streamlining licensing of nurses and physicians and allowing retirees to return to health care. He also pushed back tax filing and payment dates.
It was thin gruel. The virus isn’t waiting and neither should the governor.
It’s business as usual in Boise and other Idaho cities, though schools are closed temporarily. As the capital city, Boise sees more airline travel than smaller places in the state. It’s well connected to Seattle, the West’s hotspot. Yet, Little rejected a shelter-in-place order for anywhere but Blaine County.
That will prove to be a major mistake.
Of Blaine County’s 36 cases, 14 are health care workers. That’s likely the result of the local medical facilities remaining open to all patients and visitors with no physical screening or separation until the virus had already invaded. The local hospital and clinics are part of a larger connected Boise-based system.
The Sun Valley area’s resort status made it more vulnerable than some remote outposts with its direct flights from major cities and lots of drive-in winter visitors. It was inevitable that the virus would show up here.
The virus moves fast. The first case was announced in China on Dec. 31. The first case in the U.S. was confirmed Jan. 21 in Washington state. The first confirmed case in Idaho was announced Friday, March 13. The first in Blaine County came a day later. Lack of testing has left us blind to the full dimensions.
Idahoans and our governor have a choice. Sleep at the wheel, let the virus spread and let patients overwhelm health facilities—or clamp down on citizen activities that spread the virus and deal with the economic consequences later.
Prevention is not fear. Fear is being frozen in the headlights.