PHD approves district-wide mask mandate

by CHANSE WATSON, Managing Editor and CRAIG NORTHRUP, Hagadone News Network
| November 19, 2020 2:06 PM

By a count of four "Yes" votes to two "No" votes (and one abstained vote), the Panhandle Health District Board of Directors approved a district-wide mask mandate Thursday afternoon.

The mandate took effect immediately after the vote and will be in place for 60 days for the five Idaho panhandle counties of Kootenai, Shoshone, Boundary, Bonner and Benewah. Failure to comply will be a misdemeanor crime that carries a max penalty of a $1,000 citation and/or 60 days in jail.

Shoshone County Sheriff Mike Gunderson has stressed in the past that his office will favor education over enforcement when it comes to any mask mandate, but this recent move by the PHD board would allow his deputies the option to take more serious action if needed.

The language of the mandate itself is nearly identical to the previous Kootenai County mask mandate and the city mandates of Kellogg and Coeur d'Alene.

Kootenai and Boundary counties have all been in the substantial “Red” categories since Oct. 22. Shoshone County followed suit on Oct. 29. Bonner County was moved into the “Red” category on Nov. 12, while Benewah County turned “Red” Thursday. The color designations indicate whether or not counties meet particular metrics to determine the risk of community spread. The “Red” category indicates a rolling seven-day average new case count greater than 30 per day, a testing positivity rate greater than 20 percent, hospital occupancy rate reaching 100 percent, or hospitals implementing crisis standards of care.

Andrea Nagel, communications coordinator for Kootenai Health, told the Coeur d’Alene Press that the hospital hit a new high Thursday. As of 8 a.m., 49 COVID-19 patients were currently admitted, 14 of whom were considered critical. Nagel said 93 percent of Kootenai Health’s medical/surgical beds are currently full.

Kootenai Health is the headquarters for COVID treatment in North Idaho. Kootenai County has been the focus of the Panhandle Health board as COVID-19 cases over the last four months continue to climb, with the board implementing a mask mandate on July 23 for Kootenai. That mandate was then rescinded Oct. 23, the same day that Kootenai Health announced it had reached 99 percent capacity as hospital leaders pleaded to continue the mask mandate.

“Gentlemen," nurse and PHD board member Jai Nelson told the board during Thursday's meeting, “we need to start making deliberative decisions. Right now, the data is on a sharp increase: Infections, hospitalizations and deaths are increasing at a staggering rate.”

Board members Dr. Allan Banks and Glen Bailey were the two “no” votes, while Shoshone County Commissioner Mike Fitzgerald, nurse Jai Nelson, Dr. Richard McLandress, M.D., and chair Marlow Thompson all voted “yes.”

Fitzgerald, Shoshone's representative who voted in favor of the original Kootenai County mandate, against its renewal, then in favor of the district-wide mandate Thursday, explains that his reasoning for his stance is based on what the experts and numbers are saying.

"Kootenai Health is in what they refer to as the color purple. They're at 93% capacity as of today and they're already routing people to different places," he said. "I'm utilizing health based items with the overall goal of reducing the virus' spread, reduce potential illness, reduce complications from the illness, and most importantly — reduce the amount of death."

He added that while he previously voted down a renewal of the Kootenai mask mandate — due mainly to a low level of participation — a district-wide mandate has a better chance of being effective and stopping the spread of the virus.

Boundary County Commissioner Walt Kirby described immense political pressure from constituents that bordered on venomous as his reason to vote to rescind the previous Kootenai mandate. Now, Kirby said getting inundated with threats and harassment — both after voting for the mandate and voting to rescind it — had him considering resignation from the board before he decided to simply finish out the year.

“I’ve got one month and six days,” he told the board. “You figure that one out. That’s all I’ve got. I think I’m going to go out with a splash, but I don’t know which way to go, exactly. So I think, in that case, I need to recuse myself. I just don’t want to hear any more crap from the world out there. I don’t want to be on the bad guy’s side or the good guy’s side in this thing, because I’m done with Panhandle Health.”

Thursday’s decision comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge locally. A total of 4,169 new cases have emerged district-wide in the last five weeks, more than the 3,888 from the previous seven months combined.

In Shoshone County, PHD reports 124 active COVID-19 cases as of Thursday and 22 related deaths — 15 of which have come from a single nursing home in Kellogg.

“We need to make data-driven decisions,” Nelson said Thursday. “The data, the trends, are predicting a holiday surge in infection rate, further stressing our health care systems and our health care workers. The data trend line shows we are going to see an unprecedented surge of infections following Thanksgiving. And if people don’t learn from Thanksgiving, we’re going to see it again at Christmas, and again at New Year’s.”

“We are facing a humanitarian crisis,” Nelson added, “and a health crisis not seen in the past 100 years. Gentlemen, it’s our job to provide leadership in a pandemic response. This is a test of our leadership.”

For the full language of the mandate, visit www.panhandlehealthdistrict.org/news/