The Panhandle Board of Health rescinded the region’s mask mandate Thursday as the California COVID-19 variant has been found in the region.
Some board members argued the drop in cases meant it was time to get rid of the mask mandate.
“There has been a precipitous drop in new cases, and the immediate threat to our public health and safety is no longer there,” said Glen Bailey, who represents Bonner County on the board.
Board member Jai Nelson, of Kootenai County, said removing the mask mandate was premature.
“I think we need to continue to use caution in our communities,” she said. “We will reduce the potential for even more aggressive variants.”
In the Panhandle, there are 19 residents hospitalized with the virus and more than 1,000 cases monitored by the district. Thursday, the district confirmed 17 new cases. So far, 282 Panhandle residents have died from COVID-19.
The Panhandle Health District announced all adults 16 and older in the region are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, ahead of the entire state, due to a decline in demand. So far, 29% of Panhandle residents have received at least one shot.
Nelson, a registered nurse, and Dr. Richard McLandress were the only two of the seven to vote against rescinding the mandate.
“We have not reached a tipping point,” McLandress said. “It is not accurate as projected by Glen (Bailey) that our threat is gone.”
Allen Banks, who has spoken against the mandate since its inception, used a study that shows masks are effective to argue they should rescind the mandate.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in March found mandates in some counties led to a 1.1% decrease in COVID-19 case growth after 20 days, and up to 1.8% decrease in COVID-19 case growth 100 days after the mandate. Mask mandates were also associated with a decrease in deaths.
Banks claimed the 1% decrease in cases associated with mandates is even lower, and the study did not account for “the damage that’s being done to people by wearing masks,” both social and psychological.
McLandress disagreed, noting the large body of evidence that supports masking as effective.
“Your look at this is looking at a few selected trees – or a few selected points – which is injecting doubt into the public, and I believe it’s counterproductive to public health and public safety,” McLandress said. “And I think it’s important to look at the broader picture, and that’s my bottom line.”
Bailey and Banks were joined by Commissioners Tim Bertling and Mike Fitzgerald, as well as Board Chairman Marlow Thompson, who all voted to rescind the mandate but did not comment on votes.
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