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Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper asks questions during a City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

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If the regional health board sticks to its plan, masks should again be mandatory throughout eastern Idaho’s most populous county.

A two-month decline in the region’s reported coronavirus infections halted last week, raising daily case averages from 40-50 to more than 60. The increased case counts locally come as three more infectious virus variants have been detected in Idaho, according to the state health department.

Rising caseloads bring Bonneville, Fremont and Jefferson counties above the threshold for mask mandates — at least 15 active cases per 10,000 people for three consecutive days.

Two of the state’s top five counties with the highest number of new coronavirus cases in the past week were Bonneville (second) and Madison (fifth) counties.

Some attribute rising infections to the Eastern Idaho Public Health board two weeks ago removing a long-standing mask mandate in Bonneville County, the region’s largest county; authorities say the health order wasn’t being enforced.

“We’re one of the state’s hotspots,” Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper said during an event Friday. “It’s likely that this is a response … to the lifting of Eastern Idaho Public Health’s masking requirement a couple of weeks ago.”

The Eastern Idaho Public Health board plans to meet 7 a.m. Thursday, a month after its last meeting. Planned discussion topics were not released on the health district’s website as of 3 p.m. Monday.

Last fall, a spike in coronavirus cases in Idaho was so severe that “we actually came dangerously close in December to running out of health care capacity in the state,” according to state health Director Dave Jeppesen.

Instead, reported infections reversed course, declining steadily starting around Christmas. The expected post-holiday case spike didn’t occur.

Local health officials interpreted the lower case counts, in part, as a sign that people were doing the right thing by wearing masks, washing hands frequently, avoiding gatherings and maintaining physical distance. Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board, which leads COVID-19 response measures for eight counties, has lifted mask mandates in five counties so far this year.

The move is in line with the board’s four-tier plan that says it should issue, lift and re-issue mandates in counties depending on case counts and other factors. Notably, test positivity rates have improved in Eastern Idaho Public Health since December. Still, the health district’s 9.8% test positivity rate is almost double the 5% benchmark at which national health experts say the virus is being adequately monitored.

Reached by phone Monday, regional health board chairman Bryon Reed said, “Our plan was always about hospitalizations. And I’m just so glad right now that because of the vaccines and better treatments that (doctors) have, our hospitals are continuing in great shape.

Rising case counts haven’t yet translated into a significant jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Jeppesen said last week that eastern Idaho’s hospitals were operating near normal capacity. Experts say it typically takes weeks for changes in behavior to affect reported coronavirus infection counts. Weeks later, changes in COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths may follow.

Seniors, who are dying at the highest rates from COVID-19, are eligible to receive vaccines in Idaho.

As of last week, Jeppesen said more than 42% of nearly 300,000 Idahoans age 65 and up had received at least their first COVID-19 vaccine. He said the state cannot tell how many of them were seniors who live independently or seniors who live inside nursing homes and assisted living centers. More than a quarter-million seniors live independently in Idaho.

People age 60 and above account for nine in 10 COVID-19 deaths in Idaho. Long-term care facilities alone are linked with more than four in ten of the state’s more than 1,800 deaths from COVID-19.

Masks are mandatory in Madison and Teton counties. Violators can be charged with a misdemeanor, which could carry up to six months in jail and $300 in fines.

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.

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