CANYON COUNTY, Idaho — Officials at Southwest District Health do not anticipate moving backwards to the higher restrictions of Stage 3, despite a growing number of coronavirus cases in the district.
The health district, which covers Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties, held a board meeting Tuesday morning to discuss the COVID-19 response.
Director Nikki Zogg said the district is working closely with city and county officials, emergency managers, and business owners, and is not recommending a rollback to the previous stage.
"Our current data indicate that most of our new cases are from workplace exposures and social gatherings such as family reunions, graduation parties, funerals, and weddings," she said. "Rolling back to Stage 3 would likely have little impact on these activities. Southwest District Health recommends that the size of large gatherings be limited, that safety precautions continue to be followed and that residents assess the risk of an event before choosing to attend."
Zogg told board members she believed the role of the district was to "manage" the outbreak - that is, ensure case numbers remain low enough that they do not overwhelm the healthcare system and complete contact tracing of people who test positive in a timely manner.
She added that the current number of cases are not overwhelming the district.
"I feel like we're managing OK where we are today," Zogg said.
But cases are trending upward, most notably in Canyon County, which was at 1,316 confirmed cases as of Monday evening. Only Ada County, a COVID-19 hotspot where positive cases are surging close to 3,000, has more.
Numbers in the district's more rural counties are lower, ranging from less than a dozen in Adams County as of Tuesday afternoon to just over 100 in Payette County.
Ricky Bowman, the district's public health preparedness manager, said SWDH has averaged 100 new positive cases per day for the last week, with 20 hospitalizations. Fifteen of those who ended up in the hospital were over the age of 60, while the remaining five were in the 40-59 age range, he said.
The district also has ten longterm care facilities with COVID-19 cases, Bowman added, although staff members at the facilities make up most of the infected. Eight of the ten are in Canyon County.
Mass testing from employers explains some of the increase in cases. Other infections have been linked to social gatherings, graduation parties, travel, or other events where attendees were not taking the proper precautions, he said.
"There has not been a lot of adherence to physical distancing or even wearing masks," Bowman said.
However, the district will not issue an order requiring residents to wear masks or face-coverings into businesses or when social distancing is not possible, Zogg said, adding that she did not believe they had the legal standing to do so. Instead, that decision will be left up to individual counties and cities, she said.
Some cities around Idaho - including Boise, Hailey, McCall, Ketchum and Moscow - have already issued mandatory mask orders. Zogg said district officials will support the decision of any city in the district that wishes to do the same.
Discussions of recommending further restrictions if cases in the district continue to spike drew pushback from most members of the SWDH Board of Health, which is made up of a physician representative and one county commissioner from each county in the district.
Adams County Commissioner Viki Purdy warned against creating "a barrage of fear" and said that negative mental health impacts from a constant stream of alarming news could ultimately prove more harmful than the virus itself.
The board members also questioned whether asymptomatic people could in fact transmit coronavirus and said they would not support the district issuing any travel restrictions or business closures, even if the district reached the "red" alert level of 50 new cases per 100,000 people.
All of the counties in the southwest district are currently in Stage 4 of Idaho's reopening plan, as is the rest of the state except for Ada County, which was rolled back to Stage 3 by Central District Health in June after a major spike in transmission.
Idaho was set to move forward out of Stage 4 in late June, but Idaho Gov. Brad Little ultimately extended the phase for two more weeks after the state saw rising cases and failed to meet the benchmarks set to lift Stage 4 restrictions.
The governor said officials will evaluate at the end of this week and issue a recommendation on the next steps.
At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.
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