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Dr. Kenneth Krell, who leads Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s virus response team, speaks about COVID-19 in Idaho at a virtual City Club of Idaho Falls on Thursday, June 4.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct information about which Idaho public health district in the area reported a spike in COVID-19 cases.

An eastern Idaho doctor on Thursday warned that Idahoans should continue socially distancing and wearing masks to prevent another spike in COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Kenneth Krell, who leads the virus response team for Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit, told a virtual gathering of the City Club of Idaho Falls that economic recovery comes at a cost, and that cost could be bigger depending on how people behave now.

“Those community responsibilities come at a cost, but if we’re unable to meet that challenge, we’re going to see an increasing number of cases in this state and risk a further economic disaster,” Krell said.

Before he delivered a barrage of information about the pandemic, Krell was awarded the John D. Hansen Civility Award, which honors the legacy of an Idaho Falls lawyer and state senator who died in 2017. Hansen was remembered for his ability to work with people from both sides of the aisle.

Krell discussed the cultural and epidemiological aspects of the pandemic — including recommendations for how people should behave socially during the state’s reopening — that revolved around how, he said, “it’s not a time to be impatient” because that could lead to more hardship.

“We all want to get out of this, and we’d all like to get back to what we thought of in the past as normal living,” Krell said. “And the quickest way to do that is to prevent a second surge.”

Krell’s talk came two days after Eastern Idaho Public Health District announced that cases in the area have increased more rapidly than they ever have during the pandemic, and three days after officials confirmed the first COVID-19 death in southeast Idaho.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 57 news coronavirus cases Wednesday, including four new cases in Madison County and three new cases in both Bannock and Bingham counties, according to Betsy Russell’s ”Eye on Boise” blog.

FOLLOWING SAFETY PROCEDURES

Wearing masks is still important, Krell said, and they aren’t just for instances in which you cannot socially distance yourself from others.

While most of the respiratory droplets that spread the virus travel between 6 and 10 feet, he said, some smaller droplets can linger in the air and travel between 8 to 14 feet. Sneezing and coughing are two ways these droplets spread, but Krell notes that talking spreads them, too.

Even homemade facemasks (that are made with thick material) can reduce three-quarters of respiratory droplets, he said. Noting that Asian countries such as Japan and China report low COVID-19 case counts, Krell said their culture around wearing masks likely helped slow the outbreak early.

IDAHO’S RESPONSE

“Thank the lord for governors,” Krell joked. He said Idaho Gov. Brad Little provided good leadership about how important wearing a face mask is, among other safety measures. But Krell did say he disagreed with Little’s choice not to open Idaho’s state health insurance exchange during the pandemic, which Idaho is the only state to not do.

“Only by opening up the exchange can we subsidize health care and not put people in a vulnerable position,” Krell said.

The U.S.’s low rate of testing made the pandemic more difficult to control, he said, but he said the “abysmal” nature of testing and contact tracing was because there was poor leadership from the federal government.

“Our lack of testing in the United States is our original sin in this pandemic,” he said.

Little’s plan for Idaho to ramp up testing to 30,000 tests per week is a start to having a better gauge of Idaho’s COVID-19 caseload, Krell said, but “we are no where near coming up with those tests” because manufacturing has lagged, particularly on the rapid, 1-hour turnaround tests that he said are crucial for officials to quickly identify and isolate people who test positive.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy.