Masks back on Panhandle Health board's radar

Hagadone News Network | November 18, 2020 12:29 PM

The Panhandle Health District’s board will once again debate whether or not to implement a mask mandate.

The board’s three-month-long mask restriction over Kootenai County was rescinded Oct. 23 after a flurry of complaints and protests drove openly frustrated board members to pull the plug on what became a controversial mandate met with poor compliance.

“Nobody’s wearing the damned masks anyway,” Boundary County Commissioner Walt Kirby said at the Oct. 23 board meeting. “All they are is just thumbing their noses at us, anyway. It’s about over. People are dying, they’re going to keep dying, they’re going to keep catching this stuff, and they’re going to keep giving it to one another, right along until there’s a vaccine for it … I’m just sitting back and watching them catch it and die. Hopefully I’ll live through it.”

The same day that Panhandle Health’s board rescinded their mask mandate, the health district placed Kootenai County in its substantial “Red” risk category. Now, with the district holding Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary and Shoshone counties in “Red” — with lone outlier Benewah County in the moderate “Orange” risk category — masks are once again on the table.

“One of our board members requested an amendment to the agenda,” Panhandle Health public information officer Katherine Hoyer said. “We’re required to notice it appropriately.”

Hoyer — who, along with the rest of the staff at Panhandle Health, has no direct vote one way or the other on whether or not the health district implements restrictions — said COVID-19 has run roughshod through the local population. Tuesday’s new case count of 204 new cases district-wide represents the second-highest day since the pandemic began, eclipsed only by Nov. 6’s 209 new cases. A total of 3,964 new cases have emerged since Oct. 13, a steadfastly surging trend that Hoyer said has North Idaho on uncertain footing.

“We’re at the worst point of the pandemic thus far,” she said. “The worst part is, we don’t know if this is the worst point we’re going to get from here, or if we’re going to see a greater increase in cases in the days and weeks ahead.”

Hoyer confirmed that contact tracing procedures have deteriorated, as the sheer number of cases prohibits thorough investigating.

“Our contact tracing has been scaled down,” she said. “When we receive a lab report, we’re conducting shorter interviews and asking the subject to contact their close contacts themselves now … And that lessens our role in public health. We won’t know if necessarily a bunch of new cases were linked to one party or gathering of some sort. Without that, our ability to positively impact public health in the area (weakens).”

Hoyer urged that if people don’t modify their behaviors accordingly, she expects isolations and case counts to continue to rise, a challenge with the holidays approaching. But Hoyer added that people can still celebrate without posing dangers to the community.

“What I want to stress is,” she said, “this isn’t your last Thanksgiving. This isn’t your last Christmas. If we can just stick to our households this year, we can get through this.”

The board meeting at Panhandle Health’s Hayden headquarters begins at 12:30 p.m. Thursday.