POCATELLO – The Southeastern Idaho Public Health Board of Health held its biweekly meeting on Thursday to review and alter current risk levels for the Sixth District regarding COVID-19. Previously, different counties were at different risk levels and had their positions changed depending on the status of the virus in their backyards; however, SIPH’s Board of Health felt that each county needed to be moved to the high-risk category following the continued trends in each of the counties.

Prior to getting into the discussion of cases in each county, SIPH Director Maggie Mann invited Dr. Georgia Milan to speak to the members of the board. Dr. Milan leads the Pocatello free clinic and has been involved in the medical field since the late 1960s. Dr. Milan has worked around the globe in her profession and provided a different form of appeals to the board.

She focused on facts as well as emotion to share information regarding COVID-19 and the continued problem in southeastern Idaho and explained that there is no right answer to this pandemic. Dr. Milan spent more time expressing the emotional side of the mask debate, stating, “We can do better than this,” in reference to the current levels of infection in the state of Idaho. She did not pull punches when addressing the board and said, “How many deaths will it take for us to step up?”

Dr. Milan referenced a report that one in three children who contract the virus remain asymptomatic through the entirety and can continue to spread the virus as well as some anecdotal evidence regarding other medical professionals that she knows who are still having health issues after “recovering” from COVID. The doctor she referenced continues to suffer from pulmonary issues and is not able to walk a mile without problems after previously scaling mountains in the Middle East. Dr. Milan spent the majority of her presentation expressing compassion for the person and explaining that there has to be a better way to go about slowing the infection rates in Idaho.

Following her presentation, she was asked a series of questions from different members of the board starting with Ken Erstep. Erstep asked her is she felt that a mask mandate would be the proper decision carried about by the SIPH Board of Health. Dr. Milan bluntly stated that she felt it would be a great step in the right direction, but was not afraid to explain that it is not a miracle solution.

She also explained that as a vaccine becomes readily available, it will help prevent some of the issues being seen at the present time. Other questions asked of Dr. Milan involved the disparities between men and women contracting the virus and the implications of the upcoming flu season. It was explained that men are more likely to contract COVID-19 by a marginal amount. She then covered the question about the flu; Dr. Milan stated that the first two flu deaths in the state of Idaho for this season have been reported and that both patients were dual infected having influenza and the coronavirus in their systems at the time of death. Following that statement, she reminded those listening and in attendance that getting a flu shot would be a wise decision.

Erstep then turned the conversation among the board members to reviewing their position on a mask mandate. Bannock County Commissioner Ernie Moser put it bluntly, that there will never be a mask mandate in Bannock County. They discussed the subject back and forth before deciding to leave the verbiage as it was — to strongly recommend and advise. Other members explained that in their counties, they have affirmed resolutions with the same language.

Mann then provided hospital updates across the state. Bingham Memorial Hospital is at 100% of their intensive care unit beds filled at the date of the report and Portneuf Regional Medical Center had only 25% of their ICU beds unfilled, demonstrating the strain on medical facilities. Mann went on to explain that even those without full ICU facilities are still at a level of capacity because they simply cannot handle any more patients, referencing St. Luke’s Hospital in Twin Falls that has been on diversion for over a week now sending patients from their location to other hospitals that are able to continue to provide care. Mann furthered this point by explaining some medical facilities are doing triage-only work, deciding who receives care in what order based on severity of the situation.

She then shifted gears into the current levels of infection and active cases in each of the eight counties that make up the Sixth District.

Although some of the counties have seen downtrends over the past two weeks, all of them remain over the high threshold on numbers of active cases. Bannock and Power have seen the largest decreases, with Power County putting a mask mandate in place through the powers of their county commissioners. In Power County, they have had the largest decrease potentially in part by the mandate, while Bannock dropped from over 600 active cases during the previous meeting to 435 as of Wednesday. Bear Lake County had issues with reporting that led to a massive upturn in one day that has since been rectified by SIPH and hospital officials. Oneida County is in belief that by the time of their next meeting on Dec. 10, they will be ready to be moved to the Minimal-Risk category because of the measures being taken by their residents.

Before the meeting turned to each county making a motion for themselves, Chairman Erstep wanted to address an issue from the previous meeting. When it came time for Bingham County Commissioner Whitney Manwaring to make a motion regarding the current risk level in his county, the vote was deadlocked at 4-4. Because there are only eight counties in the health district, a 4-4 would be a deadlock and the motion would fail on the floor; however, Erstep believed that he could vote for his county as the representative of Power County as well as the chairperson to break a tie if needed. Both Erstep and Moser felt they had interpreted Robert’s Rules of Oder correctly, with Erstep believing he did his role correctly, and Moser citing Robert’s Rules where it says that a chairperson shall not vote more than once. Due to this issue, it was recommended that they have Dr. Fernandez be the deciding vote in a 4-4 tie, meaning that he would only provide a vote if it was necessary.

When it finally came time to vote, all counties in the district were either moved into or remained in the High-Risk category.