EIPH 10.01

Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board of county representatives met Oct. 1 amid an unprecedented surge of new virus cases.

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Officials look to change pandemic response plan

Regional health officials on Thursday, frustrated with an unprecedented surge of new coronavirus cases, followed course with their pandemic response plan by mandating masks in three counties with high rates of spread — Custer, Lemhi and Teton — but they said they’d look to change their plan.

The latest round of mandates, approved Thursday morning by Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board, put seven of eight counties here under heightened social restrictions as the virus runs more rampant than ever in eastern Idaho and amid a statewide resurgence.

“Unless people follow (the orders), they have no impact,” said health district Director Geri Rackow. “And I am honestly discouraged with the reception from people within our health district to voluntarily take those measures, and I’m very discouraged with our ability to enforce any of those measures that we’re taking.”

Eastern Idaho hospitals told health board members that they’re concerned about staff resources as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise. Such patients require more resources than do typical patients, and they typically stay in the hospital for much longer.

Idaho Falls Community Hospital CEO Casey Jackman said his hospital was on diversion Thursday morning because it couldn’t treat any more patients in its intensive care unit.

All his hospital’s ICU staff have been deployed, he said. A little more than half of his building’s bed capacity is in use, but he said only a few more patients will push the hospital’s medical surge unit to capacity.

“As sick as (COVID-19 patients) are, they do require a different ratio of nurses,” Jackman said.

Community Hospital opened just last fall, so he said they haven’t yet hired everyone they need to.

The region’s largest hospital, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, reported similar staffing concerns.

EIRMC Chief Operations Officer David Hoffenberg said the hospital hadn’t “reached the divert status,” but that “we are in a very similar situation.”

The surge in new cases, accompanied by reports that hospital capacity is stressed outside of the typically busy summer trauma season, ushered pleas from health officials to change in the regional pandemic response plan.

“It’s a little hard for me to keep doing the same thing if we’re not getting results. If we keep taking the same stance every time, but our results don’t change, then I’m not sure what we’re accomplishing,” said health board Chairman Bryon Reed, who represents Bonneville County.

Madison County, a statewide hotspot, has accounted for much of eastern Idaho’s surge in new cases. Cases in Madison have risen so quickly that the county is the first to breach the threshold of 50 active cases per 10,000 people for the high-risk level, where the region’s pandemic response plan says more restrictions should come, such as a rigid ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. But the the health board didn’t address that Thursday.

Throughout September, Madison County added 650 new coronavirus of the 2,244 reported in all eight counties in Eastern Idaho Public Health’s jurisdiction. In other words, a county with 18% of eastern Idaho’s population accounted for 29% of the region’s new cases last month.

Young adults are driving the spike there, the Post Register found in an analysis of public health data. About two weeks ago Brigham Young University-Idaho resumed in-person classes in Rexburg with a mask requirement. Last Friday, the college warned staff and students it could close campus if the spike continues. Since then, Madison County has reported 177 new cases.

All eight counties here have, at one time or another, been under those restrictions. But this is the first time seven counties are under the restrictions simultaneously.

Clark County, Idaho’s least populated county, isn’t under restrictions. The board evaluates that county’s coronavirus risk level on a case-by-case basis.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.