IDAHO FALLS — Eastern Idaho Public Health won’t be issuing any more public health orders on COVID-19, including mask mandates, after a decision by its board Thursday.
Although it is still highly recommending individuals, businesses, schools and others to implement proper safety protocols, personal responsibility is now being pushed rather than countywide enforcement.
“(Hospitals) are in a good position to care for all patients needing hospital care. Our kids are in school, our businesses are open, and more and more people every single week are getting vaccinated. With all of this being said, I feel that continuing to issue public health orders is no longer justified,” EIPH District Director Geri Rackow said in the board meeting. “I make a plea for personal accountability for everyone to make the choice for yourself to help in slowing the spread of the disease.”
The numbers on EIPH’s website show conditions have improved significantly since the end of last year, but numbers have grown more recently.
At the end of 2020, numbers were peaking. Hospitalizations were at 65 people on Nov. 25, and new case numbers hit 312 on Dec. 9. Since then, the numbers have dropped as low as 30 new cases on Feb. 6, and only 18 people hospitalized on Feb. 8. In March, however, there has been an uptick. There were 31 hospitalizations and 89 new cases on March 4.
Overall, since the pandemic began in March 2020, at least 23,943 people contracted COVID-19 in the district. But as expected, due to its high recovery rate, the vast majority — 23,466 people — have recovered. So far, 219 people have died with it in EIPH. Statewide, 172,587 people have gotten the virus since March 2020, with 95,524 recoveries and 1,879 deaths. The vast majority of the local and statewide deaths are people over 60 years old.
The recent increase in numbers could be from multiple different factors, including the transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 in Gov. Brad Little’s Rebound Idaho Plan, local areas lifting mask or gathering mandates, or events like local sports allowing more spectators. Officials say people not following proper COVID-19 safety recommendations has likely been a big part of the recent increase.
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Once again, Bonneville, Fremont, and Jefferson counties have been moved from the minimal risk (green) level on EIPH’s COVID-19 Regional Response Plan to the moderate risk (yellow) level. Before Thursday’s decision, that would have resulted in a reinstitution of a mask mandate and gathering restrictions. Now masks and gathering limitations are only a recommendation from EIPH. All counties still fall under the 50 person gathering limit from Stage 3 of the Rebound Idaho Plan.
Madison and Teton counties are currently are under mask mandates, but they will be lifted on Thursday, March 18. The time was added to allow for proper education to take place to encourage the public to be safe even if they are currently not under a county mandate.
Rackow proposed the plan, which focused on stopping public health orders, to the board. Most were in favor of the idea.
“I feel strongly that to issue a public health order to an entire county … that takes somewhat of a critical need to justify that course of action,” Board Chairman and Bonneville County Commissioner Bryon Reed said. “At this time, I do not sense there is that critical need to justify that.”
The board is made up of the county commissioners in EIPH’s jurisdiction, and one resident doctor, Dr. Barbara Nelson. She was the only member to oppose the suggested change.
“I think rescinding a mask mandate is being done prematurely,” she told the board.
Nelson said the area has seen cases rise as local mandates have been lifted. Also, eastern Idaho doesn’t have a significant number of people vaccinated, and some of the new variations of the COVID-19 virus are more prone to reinfect people who have already had the virus.
“We are talking human lives here and disability, and I think we have seen that compliance is worse without a mandate,” she said.
However, the vote still passed, and the policy is in effect.
In the board’s discussion, educating the public on how to continue to be safe without a direct mandate was seen as highly important. Rackow said EIPH has been focusing on education daily, while many counties, cities, or organizations have been creating their own education campaigns on the virus.
Although this vote will stop EIPH from implementing public health orders, local governments and organizations can still create mandates for those in their jurisdiction at any time. For example, the cities of Victor and Driggs currently have their own mandates, and this vote from the Board of Health does not affect them in any way.
The plan added specific language that does allow the board to go back to implementing measures based on specific circumstances if it deems it necessary.
EIPH issued its COVID-19 Regional Response Plan eight months ago in July 2020, and has been mandating masks for counties whose COVID-19 numbers place them in the moderate (yellow) risk level. EIPH will continue to show counties what risk level they fall into, but will not issue mandates that have regularly been part of higher risk levels.
Instead, EIPH is asking everyone to apply the following recommendations until everyone who wishes to can receive their vaccine:
- Stay home when you are sick to prevent the spread of illness to others.
- Practice good hand hygiene.
- Maintain physical space between yourself and others outside of your immediate household.
- Wear a face covering when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
- Get vaccinated when it is your turn.
On Monday, March 15, those in Priority Group 2.3 will be able to qualify for the vaccine and can register on the EIPH waiting list here. This group includes:
- Food and agriculture workers (including food processing workers but NOT food service or restaurant/fast food workers)
- USDA processing plant inspectors
- Grocery, convenience store and food pantry workers
- Idaho National Guard if not included earlier
- Manufacturing, public transit, and U.S. Postal Service workers
- Subset of essential gas, electric, water, and telecommunications utility workers, who work indoors
- Homeless shelter residents
If you are currently eligible to be vaccinated and haven’t been but wish to, call the EIPH office at (208) 533-3223 to book an appointment.
More information on EIPH’s plan can be found here, including a document of their updated response plan.