Despite Idaho facing anti-mask protests in Boise, overrun hospitals in the Panhandle and an extraordinarily high number of test results coming back positive, Gov. Brad Little stopped short of implementing any more public health orders on Thursday.
In his first news conference in a month, Little pointed to the state’s increasing case counts and limited hospital capacity, again urging residents to wear a mask and socially distance. The percentage of Idaho test results for COVID-19 that are coming back positive is the highest in the nation.
Little refused to implement any sort of further statewide mandate on masks or gatherings, something he said he believes should be left to local jurisdictions.
His focus now is on changing the messaging, he said.
“What I want is compliance,” Little said, “and we’re just having an issue.”
Idaho is currently in a modified Phase 2 of its reopening plan. Last month, Little announced the move backward, which put more restrictions on social gatherings, limiting them to 10 people or fewer, but allowed businesses and restaurants to remain open as long as everyone is seated.
As of Thursday, Idaho had the highest percentage positive rate in the United States. Of all the people who had a test for COVID, 55.6% of the results came back positive, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Testing Tracker.
By comparison, Washington’s daily percent positive rate was 6.6%.
“By now all of you know someone who’s been affected with COVID-19,” Little said.
In multiple counties, Little said morgues are full. Emergency calls for COVID-19 patients in some areas are up 300%, and so far this year, COVID-19 is the third-leading cause of death in the state.
Little has refused to implement a statewide mask mandate since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving it up to local health districts to decide. The Panhandle Health District, the five-county district in North Idaho, passed a mask mandate on Nov. 19.
The Central District Health Board – which represents Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties – attempted to vote on a mask mandate on Tuesday, but had its meeting cut short after protests outside the health department and health officials’ homes threatened public safety.
Little called the behavior “reprehensible.”
“These actions are nothing more than bullying tactics that seek to silence,” Little said Thursday. “Our right to free speech should not be used to intimidate and scare others.”
Hospitals remain strained as capacity increases in Idaho
As of Thursday, Kootenai Health had its highest number of COVID-19 patients yet: 76 people, including 16 needing critical care. The hospital has had to convert two and a half of its units into COVID-19 units, with many rooms having double occupancy.
The hospital is looking at other areas to expand its COVID unit, said spokeswoman Andrea Nagel.
All hospital admissions are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, she said. Given high volumes, the hospital may start experiencing delays in some services.
“Capacity issues are straining our system,” Dr. Robert Scoggins, Kootenai Health pulmonary critical care physician, said in a news conference.
The hospital has a seven-day rolling percent positive rate of 29.9% and this week surpassed 60,000 tests since the beginning of the pandemic.
The state has done everything it can to try to improve hospital capacity, Little said. For example, telehealth capabilities have expanded, the National Guard has been activated, and 1,100 new nursing professionals licensed.
But resources are still limited, and it could get worse, he said. If the current trend remains, the state will have to begin its crisis standards of care, guidelines for how to allocate health care resources when the system is overwhelmed.
It could mean only treating emergency patients, or choosing which patients get certain resources that could save their lives. Individual choices, such as wearing a mask or avoiding gatherings, can prevent the need to ration care in the coming weeks or months, he said.
When asked what more he can do in order to avoid implementing those procedures, Little again pointed to compliance, adding he’s done everything he can to improve health care capacity.
Scoggins said hospital staff struggle every day, and soon, they won’t have enough resources to provide care for everyone.
“This is not the flu,” he said. “It’s not like any virus I’ve ever seen.”
Daily COVID-19 case counts
The Panhandle Health District confirmed 295 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. No new deaths were reported.
The total for the district, consisting of Benewah, Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai and Shoshone counties, is 12,399 cases of COVID-19 and 140 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 213 new cases of the virus on Thursday, bringing the county total to 20,381 cases.
Two more people have died from the virus. Currently, 117 county residents are hospitalized.
COVID data during this week will likely include the explosive outbreak at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, which has experienced more than 700 positive cases of the virus.
Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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