GRANGEVILLE – “We’re trying to tell people not to be hysterical about this,” said Carol Moehrle, Director of Public Health - Idaho North Central District. “Wash your hands, cover your cough, stay at home if you’re not feeling good.”
Moehrle spoke by teleconference at Tuesday’s March 17 Idaho County Commission meeting. The morning drew officials from city and county law enforcement, county disaster preparedness, state health department, area hospitals, criminal prosecution and the court attended to brief their respective preparedness plans.
“This is a moving target,” said Skip Brandt, commission chair, on the continually evolving novel coronavirus situation.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the state was reporting two more cases for a total nine statewide; the latest, a Rexburg student at BSU-Idaho in his 20s, and a woman older than 80 in Blaine County.
“I do question the severity of this virus in aspect of everything we’re seeing, and the number of people who contract regular flu and die of it. Definitely there’s a panic over this thing, and I know we are blessed being in an isolated situation and not as big a deal as it would be in more populated areas.”
Moehrle said the risk in the five-county North Central District (Idaho, Lewis, Clearwater, Nez Perce and Latah.) seems very low.
“The biggest unknown is when we hit that curve in our communities and we really do need to be cautious and scale back,” she said. “Personally, I don’t think we’re there, until we have an indicator, we have a trigger that pulls that decision-making,” which would be a confirmed case within the district. “There’s a whole group of the population saying we should be shutting down everything, I’m not giving that personal advice at this point,” she said. “We might be in this for a while, more than a couple of weeks, so closing things right now doesn’t make sense to me.”
Moehrle reported 55 schools in the state are closed or are closing as of Friday, for spring break and an extended week, adding, “They’re making these decisions a lot based on pressure they’re getting from their communities.”
An initial concern raised by Brandt was for the upcoming May 19 primary elections, which Idaho County Clerk Kathy Ackerman laid out the current process.
“Across the state there has been a push to have people vote by absentee ballot,” she said, and her office is preparing letters to send to all registered voters, encouraging them to take this option, and is including a request form. “I don’t want to pull the trigger yet on consolidating our polling places [potentially down to one to two locations], but it’s hard to see where we’ll be a few weeks from now, and we have deadlines on the election side we need to meet.”
Noted during the meeting is court services have been curtailed. Effective Monday, March 16 and through April 10, 2nd Judicial district counties (Idaho, Lewis, Clearwater and Latah) are limiting all public access to court floors and operation areas. At this point only attorneys, parties, victims, and necessary witnesses are being permitted.
Information on the order is online at http://sjdc.isc.idaho.gov/Home.aspx . For questions on hearings or court cases scheduled during this time, the public is asked to call the courthouse or their case attorney.
“We’re taking it by a case-by-case basis,” said Grangeville Police Chief Morgan Drew, also echoed by Cottonwood Police Chief Terry Cochran, in dealing with exposure risk during public contacts.
“If something leads us to believe there may be a risk of coronavirus, we’ll probably do a line of questioning on the scene,” Drew said, “and if that’s the case, we’ll take appropriate action, get EMS involved. Other things become secondary.” Officers won’t be making traffic stops in “big bunny” hazmat suits, he joked, but they will be provided personal protection gear, if needed.
The Idaho County jail has released nonviolent offenders, and emphasis placed on arrests for only violent offenders and serious felony cases, and county probation has moved to phone check-ins to reduce public traffic in the courthouse.
“There’s a push for nonviolent offenders to be released,” said Idaho County Prosecutor Kirk MacGregor, who met with Sheriff Doug Giddings and Undersheriff Jim Gorges, he said, with instructions to arrest violent offenders and “cite and release on most everything else as far as misdemeanors. Serious felonies [such as robbery and burglary], we’ll still arrest and put in jail.”
Later, MacGregor added, “The court system is OK now. Everything is delayed 30 days, but any longer, we prolong jury trials, and this could cause problems as far as defendant rights to a speedy trial. It’s OK now, but if it keeps going, it will be a problem.”
Moehrle said, at this point, there is no antibiotic or drug treatment, and no vaccine, with that last not expected to see within this year’s timeline. This virus is expected to circulate, and potentially may resurface in fall or winter, or even go through this summer.
“We could be in this for the long haul,” she said. “When we reach a population density where they’ve had it or been exposed to it, we will go back to business as usual. Right now, it’s getting over this hump. The concern is, if we’re not doing some of these precautionary things and it hits a community really hard, very quickly that hospital will become overrun without recourse…. There are only so many isolation rooms in our five county, only so many supplies, and that’s what we’re trying to do: Spread it out so the sickest, who need those hospital rooms can utilize them, and the rest of us can deal with it with their immune systems.”
Speaking to Syringa Hospital’s preparation, CEO Abner King said staff have a modified incident command structure to determine roles in the event of an influx of patients, which, he added, they are not seeing currently.
“Right now, the challenges are in supplies,” he said. “We have about a month’s worth in normal. Some things we have less, some things more.” Also, the facility is concerned to keep its workforce in position – healthy, as well as addressing childcare issues with kids out of school – so they can handle a patient influx.
Speaking for St. Mary’s Hospital, Steve Frei, director of ancillary services, explained they are conducting screening, which is a series of questions, to determine whether testing a patient for coronavirus is warranted. They are also putting up tents to keep those cases out of the hospital to avoid spreading the virus, and keep both patients and staff safe.
“We’re managing resources, and keeping staff as safe as possible,” he said.
Idaho County Emergency Management Office director Jerry Zumalt commented the county should coordinate its message, vetting it through county clerk, Ackerman. Moehrle’s staff also needs to be in that information chain. He also raised an issue for the commission to be considering.
“If a closure order is contemplated or issued, what are the essential services and how are we going to deal with it?” he said. We’re both an employer and a public service provider. If we can’t keep staff up, we can’t provide service.” Earlier he spoke to the county medical condition with a hopeful outlook:
“I’m convinced our hospitals and clinics in the area are well-prepared,” Zumalt said. “They’ve not been sitting idling by. They do have limitations, but they have good plans, good people/ They provide health care every day and they know how to do it.” He reiterated the message through the morning of “be vigilant, practice healthy hygiene. There may well come a time we’ll have to take concerted action.”
“This is a moving target, and I’m sure this will be a topic every week,” said commissioner Denis Duman.
“If something comes at us quickly,” Brandt continued, “we’ll call an emergency commission meeting and deal with it as we see fit.”