COVID-19 mask

The Southeastern Idaho Public Health (SIPH) Board met Thursday to discuss the situation in the region regarding any and all changes surrounding the advancement of cases of COVID-19. The board voted two weeks ago to meet biweekly instead of monthly as confirmed cases continue to run rampant across some of the counties in the district.

To date, Butte County is the only county in the SIPH district that has not had a confirmed case of coronavirus. In Bingham County, there are currently 78 active cases as of the Aug. 5 update, falling just shy of the 94 active case benchmark for the next stage.

If number of cases was the sole deciding factor of what stage each county was in, Bingham would be moderate and encroaching on high, but because of the hospitalization metric, Bingham remains in the low category. Bannock County is in a similar situation with its number of active cases. They have 66 active cases and need to be at 88 active cases to meet the minimum for moderate status along with the hospitalization numbers. But because of the missing metrics, they too remain in the low risk category.

SIPH Director Maggie Mann turned the time over to Dr. Jonathan Cree and Dr. Ronald Solbrig. Dr. Cree acknowledged that he understands the many hats worn by each of the county commissioners. He then pleaded with them to put their political hats aside and look through the lens of public health.

Dr. Cree quoted Idaho Statute 39 Chapter 4 Section 2 regarding their duties as a board of public health. “You are required to do all things for the preservation and protection of public health and preventative health,” he read. “That is a different hat, a difficult hat for you to wear,” he continued, explaining that having to look through the lens of preventative health is difficult.

He explained that in all levels, green, yellow, orange, and red should be taken seriously. Dr. Cree explained that it is an issue about capacity and public safety and how that needs to be taken into account. He said healthcare workers cannot stay the current course and that it will stress and strain over the next few months.

“I understand your political needs as a county commissioner — your political hat — in this community and this health community, your hat is preventive health,” Cree said. “I would stress to you as preventive health, that it is your duty to instate a mask mandate not only in the orange but in the yellow as well.”

Dr. Solbrig has served in many different faculties as a doctor. The Idaho State University Health Center is down to its tertiary staff even as Bannock County remains in the green. Solbrig explained that top care providers have been taken out of the equation because of exposure to COVID-19 and other illness. He focused on expressing the concerns and issues coming from community spread in Bannock and Bingham counties.

“I have done nothing but eat, sleep, and drink coronavirus for the past five months,” he said. “My stance is that there needs to be a mask mandate.” Because of the community spread issue, he explained that it is only a matter of time before community spread affects the hospital.

He explained that ISU has already made a preemptive mandate for mask wearing at virtually everywhere on campus. ISU recognizes the risk that the coronavirus presents to the school and the community, and wants to do what it can to prevent any spreading possible. Dr. Solbrig explained that massive community spread would cause issues with ISU and potential closure again.

“Mask wearing helps prevent the spread of coronavirus. Mask wearing also helps protect the person who is wearing the mask from acquiring coronavirus. We know this to be true because of mask wearing in the hospitals so that we don’t get our infections from the patients we are taking care of. So I have a strong plea ... a strong plea for the health department to institute a mask mandate. In my opinion it needs to be at the green level whenever there is community spread. The point at which a mask mandate is needed when there is community spread, and we have that. We are getting community spread now.”

Solbrig said community spread has been one of the largest hits to the Health Center. He tasked SIPH with putting public health at the forefront of its decisions as well as making it a point to express similar expectations out of the commissioners.

Solbrig also touched on the issue of enforcement, negating claims made about police departments and sheriffs’ offices not enforcing the mandate.

“Mandates and laws have instructional capacity as well. Sometimes laws and rules and mandates like this one are for instructing people what the right behavior is and the enforcement is second to the instruction,” he stated. “This is the right thing to do for community health.”

Questions were presented after Dr. Solbrig finished about where the two doctors feel masks would need to be worn. They explained that when people are in an indoor space that is not with their immediate family unit, that is where masks are necessary. Outdoors, if people can adhere to the six feet of social distance space, they will be able to continue without masks.

The conversation turned to the current numbers in each of the counties. Mann went over each of the numbers with the board and moved on to the currently active COVID-19 Regional Response Plan (RRP). Mann asked the members of the board if they felt that they needed to reevaluate the current status of any of the counties, specifically focusing on Bingham, Bannock, and Power counties.

Each of the commissioners in attendance gave their opinions which were all in disagreement of the doctors’ recommendations to institute a mandate. They like the plan they put forth two weeks prior and feel that the biweekly meetings and the options to schedule an emergency meeting are more than enough. They voted unanimously to forgo the doctors’ recommendations and stay the current course.