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As Idaho makes some progress flattening the curve, Gov. Little mulls next step in stay-home order

“Nobody wants to open up the economy more than I do, so that’s our goal,” Little said.

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State officials will be developing a plan early next week to help determine what happens after Gov. Brad Little’s initial stay-at-home order for coronavirus expires on Wednesday, Little said Thursday evening.

“It’s not perfect, but we really have flattened the curve, and that’s what our goal was,” Little said on a special “Idaho Reports” Q&A program broadcast live statewide on Idaho Public Television. “We believe that the good work that everybody in the state of Idaho is doing is starting to yield dividends, which is less people getting sick and more importantly fewer people dying.”

“Nobody wants to open up the economy more than I do, so that’s our goal,” Little said. “But what I don’t want to have, is open it up and then have us go back to what we were worried about,” including a surge in cases, exceeding hospital capacity, and more people dying.

“We do have community spread all over Idaho, and I wish we didn’t,” the governor said. He said there’ll be an announcement before the existing order expires at midnight Wednesday, but said, “We will not go back to life as we knew it 45 days ago.”

On the program, Little was joined remotely via Zoom by state Health & Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen, and in-studio by Jeremy Field, regional director for the U.S. Small Business Administration, and host Aaron Kunz.

Little said he’s trying to have the state set good examples for social distancing, and noted that when he helped hand out free lunches at a local school on Thursday, he wore a mask, as did all those involved in the effort. He said when he appears on the public TV program again next week, it’ll be remotely.

“I had never Zoomed in my life and I’ve Zoomed more in the last little bit, and WebX meeting,” the governor said. “We’re implementing a lot of that technology, and the next one of these will be remote.”

Field said the SBA has been massively ramping up its capacity to administer disaster loans for businesses and the new Paycheck Protection Program approved by Congress, which will make $349 billion available for forgivable loans to “a small business, a sole proprietor or an independent contractor, anyone in that gig economy.” The loans will cover payroll expenses, mortgage or lease payments and utilities for an eight-week period, he said.

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For businesses that have laid off employees for lack of money to pay them, “The SBA says quickly, get that loan, quickly hire back your people, give ‘em their paycheck, give ‘em their health care benefits, let them be able to pay their bills, stay at home, so we continue to lower this curve around the country,” he said.

“It’s an unprecedented program for an unprecedented challenge,” Field said.

Businesses can go to their local lenders to apply for the program, he said. Help is available from the SBA, local Small Business Development Centers, and the new Idaho Women’s Business Center.

Questions from viewers ranged from the status of coronavirus testing; to hospital capacity; to concerns about health insurance and evictions.

Jeppesen said Idaho initially had “a big backlog of testing,” but that’s now been cleared out. “At the moment we don’t have a big backlog, and this is kind of our current steady-state,” he said.

He also discussed “some exciting research taking place up in Blaine County.”

The city of Ketchum announced Wednesday that Blaine County will participate in a clinical study to test a random sample of residents for the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies, in cooperation with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and researchers at the New York-based Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

Local leaders hope the study will give a picture of how widespread the virus is within the community, and will eventually provide answers as to when it can “resume normal activity,” Boise State Public Radio reported.

Jeppesen said a blood test checks for antibodies, and it’s new; however, it’s “not particularly helpful in determining if you are currently infectious. That really needs to be done with the nose swab, to know that you have an active virus in your system.” 

The antibody test, he said, “is really helpful in helping us know if people have had the virus, and thus are likely to be immune at least for some period of time.” That’ll help researchers figure out, he said, “how close we’re getting or how far we have to move to get to some level of herd immunity.”

Both Little and Jeppesen had generally encouraging news about hospital capacity.

“We’ve got enough personal protective equipment, we’ve got enough hospital room,” Little said.

Jeppesen said, “We do know how many beds we have in the state across all the hospitals — we actually track a daily census of how many of them are being utilized, not only beds but ICU beds and ventilators. That’s how we know … that we’re actually doing fairly well at the moment.”

“Our real bottleneck is not necessarily going to be beds, it’s going to be the health care workers to take care of the people in the beds,” he said. To address that, the state has eased licensing rules for providers; and is working to ensure health care workers have access to personal protective equipment and to child care so they can continue working.

Little had no new announcement to make of action regarding evictions but reiterated his advice to landlords that it’s a “bad business practice” in the current market.

And while the Your Health Idaho insurance exchange hasn’t opened an enrollment period, as many state exchanges have, both Little and Jeppesen said anyone who’s lost coverage or work or had another change in their status qualifies to purchase insurance through the exchange.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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