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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: ‘Panhandle Board of Death’ is more appropriate

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 30, 2020

It’s time to rename the Panhandle Board of Health.

Because health is clearly no longer what that group is the Board of.

The North Idaho Board of Illness, maybe? The Committee Committed to Sickening Grandma? The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight?

It might be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

As you probably know, the Panhandle Board of Death recently repealed its mask mandate after ignoring health experts and buckling to pressure from those who believe the Constitution orders them not to wear a mask.

The board did this at a moment when the number of COVID-19 cases in North Idaho was shooting up precipitously – as they are in many parts of the country – and when Kootenai Health hospital is in danger of turning away patients because it’s full of coronavirus cases.

It’s also a moment when some political leaders in Idaho are raising the volume on their opposition to health and safety. Several state legislators participated in a video produced by the Idaho Freedom Foundation – a libertarian lobbying group that consistently yanks some Gem State lawmakers around by the nose. In the video, these legislators proudly declared they dumbly oppose coronavirus emergency declarations and public health measures taken to fight the virus.

One lawmaker referred to coronavirus as the “pandemic that may, or may not, be happening.” Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin posed for the video sitting in the driver’s seat of a pickup holding a gun and a Bible, for some reason.

All this buffoonery played out as the Idaho death toll crossed 600 – almost the population of Hayden Lake – and new records for hospitalizations in the state were being set almost daily.

This is, in other words, a moment that presents a leadership challenge to public officials in Idaho and across the country: The right thing versus the easy thing.

The Panhandle Board of Death failed it.

Later, the Coeur d’Alene City Council, under no less pressure from anti-mask hysterics and faced with the same facts about the pandemic, rose to the occasion and passed a mask mandate.

That was slightly heartening, but not so much as to erase the reality that what’s happening with right-wing coronavirus politics in Idaho – as with such politics nationwide – is actually sickening. As in, it’s making people sick.

If there is anywhere in public policy where citizens should be able to expect less insanity and more science, less reckless ignorance and more informed caution, it should be in the leadership of our public health agencies. But what the pandemic has exposed – on the Panhandle Board of Death as well as other health district governing boards – is that health boards have some folks serving on them who have no business being within spitting distance of a public health decision.

Mask wearing is a simple and effective way of trying to slow the spread of the virus. The most recent modeling by the University of Washington estimates that as many as 500,000 Americans could die of COVID-19 by February, and that universal mask-wearing could cut that figure by 130,000.

But we are not anywhere near universal mask-wearing, and that’s especially true in Idaho, where the fever of mask opposition burns hot.

The Panhandle Health District adopted a mask mandate for the five North Idaho counties in July. This was a no-brainer, remarkable only for the fact that the district might have done so sooner.

Then, after taking a lot of heat, the Board of Death voted last Thursday to rescind the mandate, and make mask-wearing a mere suggestion. The day they did so, more than 110 new cases were reported in North Idaho, and Kootenai Health was so full of COVID patients it was in danger of turning other patients away.

What led to this terrible decision? What in the world were they thinking? Glen Bailey, who introduced the resolution, said he was concerned about the virus and believed masks were effective, but was worried about people’s freedom of choice.

Walt Kirby, a Boundary County commissioner and board member, seemed annoyed that he’d been taking flak from mask opponents.

“I personally do not care whether anybody wears a mask or not,” said Kirby. “If they want to be dumb enough to walk out there and expose themselves or others to it, they can. I don’t care if it’s mandated or not, but I don’t think I’m going to vote for it, because no one is wearing the damn mask anyway. They are all thumbing their nose at us.”

Are those the words of someone who should have a vote on a Board of Health?

Worse than Bailey was Allen Banks, who represents Bonner County on the board and has a science background – which has apparently led him to question the very reality of the pandemic itself. Banks told the actual medical professionals who were pleading with him to do the right thing that he believes every positive COVID test is a “false positive.”

Every single one.

He said, incredibly: “The question I’d be asking myself if I were you is: Something is making these people sick – and I’m pretty sure it’s not coronavirus – so the question you should be asking is, what is making them sick?”

What, indeed? The Board of Death would like to know.

Not everyone on the board made a terrible decision that day. Only Banks, Bailey, Kirby and Shoshone County Commissioner Mike Fitzgerald did. Kootenai County’s board members, Nurse Jai Nelson and Dr. Richard McLandress, voted to keep the mandate, as did Benewah County Commissioner and board chairman Marlow Thompson.

Good for them. The others ought to be ridden out of the Panhandle Health District on rails.

We will look back in shame and astonishment on these days, and in particular on the degree to which our response to a fatal pandemic was invaded by bad ideas, conspiracy views, and the refusal to support the wearing of a little piece of cloth for the public good.

All while the case counts rise.

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