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Idaho will stay at Stage 4 of reopening plan, Gov. Little says


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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday that the state must stay in Stage 4 of his reopening plan for at least two more weeks to combat further spread of the coronavirus.

Ada County remains in Stage 3 under the direction of Central District Health.

The state was unable to meet the criteria to exit Little’s Idaho Rebounds plan for a second time. Stage 4 began June 13 and was extended by two weeks on June 25, also because Idaho failed to meet the criteria to advance.

This time, the state saw an upward trend in new cases and an upward trend in test positivity percentage, to 10.8% for the 14-day evaluation window. It was 5.12% during the previous attempt at Stage 4.

The 14-day average of new cases per day increased from 85.9 during the first attempt to 299.7 during the second attempt.

The state needed to show a downward trend in new cases, or a downward trend in positivity percentage, or a positivity rate of less than 5% to meet one of the six criteria. It met the other five, according to information compiled by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Little also announced his intention to push to have in-person classes this fall for the state’s K-12 school system. He emphasized the need for students to be in school this fall, and the need for Idaho residents to slow the spread of COVID-19 in order to ensure schools can open.

His decision came two days after a Central District Health meeting that outlined stark numbers of the increasing hospitalizations at the St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems due to the coronavirus. The health care systems expressed concerns about the state’s limited testing abilities and possible stress on intensive care units in Boise.

Five cities in Idaho, including Boise, Hailey, McCall, Driggs, and Moscow, have implemented public health orders mandating masks be worn in public.

Central District Health is discussing potential county-wide mask mandates for Ada and Valley counties, but the restriction hasn’t been imposed yet.

On June 25, Little extended Stage 4 of reopening for another two weeks, due to a spike in health care workers contracting the virus and increasing positive testing percentages. At the time, about 4,100 Idahoans had tested positive for the virus. Since then, the number of confirmed cases has doubled and the statewide death toll has reached 98.

Little said he supports local health districts and mayors in their decisions moving forward.

While wearing a mask is strongly recommended by the governor and health officials, Little is not mandating them statewide. He did outline that young people can also suffer real consequences of the virus, yet another reason to wear a mask.

“Some of these people that think they’re bulletproof may have a rude awakening,” Little said about people who refuse to wear masks.

Moving forward

Little’s plan for Idaho Rebounds outlines specific criteria that the state must meet before moving forward.

Among the criteria is a downward trend in positive cases over a 14-day period, or a downward trend in positive testing percentage. Idaho’s daily case counts are trending upward, and the positive testing percentage hit a record 11.2% for the last week reported (through July 4).

Idaho also didn’t meet these criteria in its first attempt at Stage 4 — with an upward trend in cases, upward trend in positive testing percentage and testing percentage above 5%.

On top of that, health care providers such as Saint Alphonsus, have asked people who are asymptomatic or who only have mild symptoms to not seek testing because labs are becoming overwhelmed. Instead, the health system directed those people to stay home and asked people with more severe symptoms to seek testing.

The state has also failed to see a downward trend in health care providers being infected, something that is another aspect of the criteria to move forward. As of Wednesday, 651 health care workers had been infected with the virus.

Little said after Stage 4, life will not go back to normal “until we have better control over the virus.”

When asked if it was a mistake to move into Stage 4, Little said “I hate to look back” unless it’s something to learn from.

“In hindsight, we should have given better direction to facilities we know now are higher-spread areas,” he said.

Several reporters asked if the actions Little took were enough, given the fact that that the Treasure Valley has a higher infection rate than it did in March.

“The no-action alternative would have been far worse,” Little said.

Unemployment rates

The Idaho Department of Labor announced Thursday that the state has seen a modest decrease in the number of unemployment claims filed.

“New initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits totaled 4,924 for the week ending July 4, decreasing 9% — or 493 claims — from the previous week,” the department reported in a news release.

The four-week moving average, however, increased 6% to an average of 4,564 new initial claims per week. Idaho workers who have been laid off filed 167,484 initial claims for unemployment benefits during the 16 weeks since the governor’s state of emergency declaration. That’s 2.9 times the total number of initial claims filed in all of 2019 in just three months.

As of July 4, total benefit payments attributed to COVID-19-related layoffs in Idaho had reached $602.4 million.