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Southwest District Health discusses COVID-19 vaccine plan, decides to hold off on mask mandate for now

Chairman Elliott said he wanted to take up the discussion on a possible face mask mandate to gauge if a special meeting was needed to vote on it.

CALDWELL, Idaho — At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Southwest District Health held a Board of Health meeting to discuss the COVID-19 situation in the district and the board's plan to roll out the new vaccines.

During the board's discussion, Dr. Sam Summers, the board's physician representative, brought up the idea of implementing a district-wide face mask mandate in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, the rest of the board was opposed to the mandate.

Chairman Bryan Elliott explained that he wanted to take up the discussion on a possible face mask mandate to gauge if a special meeting was warranted. But by the end of the board's discussion, Elliott said it was clear it wouldn't pass the board even if they did take it up for a vote.

"I guess I wanted to double-check everybody's feelings on this to see whether there was any reason to have a special meeting for a mask mandate vote," he said. "At the present time, I'm not seeing that. From what I've heard today, I don't think it's, it's a viable reason to have that. I just don't think it's going to pass at all. Unless there's change."

After the board's discussion, the district's COVID-19 incident commander, Jaime Aanensen, explained the situation that the district's COVID-19 response workforce is facing. She said the district's staff has put in about 40,000 hours of work since the pandemic began in March.

Aanensen added that the district is struggling to hire additional staff to help with the growing workload. 

"One of our biggest challenges continues to be staffing to be able to keep up with the workload. We have encountered challenges of recruiting some positions like registered nurses medical systems, and bilingual staff," she said.

She also said employees are working hybrid shifts from the office and home so the district's building has enough room for the additional staff.

Southwest District Health's public preparedness manager, Ricky Bowman, also answered board members' questions about the district's vaccine roll-out plan but first spoke about how fast-paced the distribution and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines have been.

"I must preface this by saying that this is moving at such a fast pace with things changing that, I wouldn't be surprised with some information that I tell you now may change within, you know, the upcoming hours or days and so just please understand the fluid nature of the vaccine planning and the information that we're getting from health and welfare from other partners," he explained.

He said 2,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be distributed this week to the district and another 2,000 doses will arrive in three weeks for the second shot of the vaccine.

Bowman also explained that the district will receive another shipment of the vaccine in January for people other than first responders.

Dr. Clay Roscoe, who is also working on the vaccine rollout, said they are still working out the plans to distribute the vaccine to smaller counties and communities.

The issue, he explained, is that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be moved in shipping containers that are set to minus 86-degrees Celsius. The vaccine is also sorted into individual shipping packages in the shipment and the packages allow the vaccine to be stored in a refrigerator or freezer for five days. Once out of the packaging, the vials will be thawed out in six hours.

With those tight time windows for administering the vaccine, Dr. Roscoe said SWDH and St. Luke's are facing similar issues of having to distribute the vaccine at a centralized location.

According to the Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare, Idaho should receive 13,650 doses of the newly authorized COVID-19 vaccine.