Health board aims to mitigate COVID-19

The Southwest District Health Board of Health discusses recommendations at a special meeting held at the Canyon County Courthouse on July 23. This meeting was delayed twice due to safety concerns and technical issues. From left, Kelly Aberasturi, Viki Purdy, Tom Dale, Bryan Elliott, Nikki Zogg.

PAYETTE COUNTY - Following several false starts in the past week, the Southwest District Health Board of Health finally held its special meeting at the Canyon County Courthouse in Caldwell on Thursday. The goal was to issue recommendations on further controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. About 80 people attended the meeting, according to Katrina Williams, information manager. 

Nikki Zogg, director of Southwest District Health, acknowledged comments received by the board through online surveys and from the Public Health Idaho prior to the meeting.

“We also had numerous phone calls that we’ve received through the call center,” said Zogg. “We had over 1,300 public comments in our Survey Monkey that we had posted out on our website. In summary, most of the concerns were around mandatory face coverings.”

Zogg said concerns over rights to choose whether to wear face coverings and their effectiveness were an overarching concern. Less than half of those who commented — 42% — were in favor of mandating masks, rolling back to previous stages of Idaho’s reopening plan and delaying school openings.

During the meeting, the board discussed the following recommendations for future strategy consideration:

• Recommendation to wear a face covering when SWDH declares a health alert of yellow (low) or higher, in areas where it’s not possible to social distance from those not living in one’s household;

• Limiting the density of people at events to a minimum of one per 64 square feet of space when a health alert of yellow or higher is declared, although it was not clear if this was for indoor or outdoor events or both as of press time;

• Temporarily suspending visitation to senior living or correctional facilities when new cases are detected in such places or when SWDH declares a health alert of red (high).

“Determination of the Southwest District Health COVID-19 health alert level category for each county and some of the larger cities is part of the next rollout phase,” said Williams. “A release date for that next phase is being determined and will be announced through our social media sites.”

Board member Viki Purdy, an Adams County Commissioner, expressed concern about putting any further burden on long-term care facilities.

“The mental health consequences could be far worse than anything else that could happen,” said Purdy. “Those are my concerns, that we’re making things worse not better.”

Chairman Bryan Elliott emphasized that the board is not imposing any mandates at this time, noting such were not in the agenda for this meeting.

“What I am looking to do, what I think our responsibility here, is to make sure that people who need to be able to receive medical attention can do so when they need it,” said Elliott, referring to ensuring health-care capacity. “We have an uptick, a surge… in the number of cases in every county that is in our district.”

Board member Tom Dale, Commissioner for Canyon County, urged positive action by the board in order to see results.

“Just because somebody disagrees … doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person,” said Dale. “We are in a state in our nation where we seem to be unable to disagree without saying, ‘That person’s a horrible person.’ That’s not helpful.”

As schools gear up for the fall, board member Nate Marvin, Commissioner for Washington County, urged diligence in applying recommendations.

“I am glad to see these recommendations; I can go along with them,” said Marvin. “There are a lot of ‘what if’s affecting our schoolchildren, our teachers, our education system. Hopefully this is a good start.”

Board member Kelly Aberasturi, Vice-chair Commissioner for Owyhee County, said Owyhee County has a similar system to the Board’s color-coded system and said he supports it. 

“It’s strictly for information, for those people that work over there so they have an idea that they’re entering into an area that is high risk,” said Aberasturi. “I think that’s a great thing for us.”

Several members of the public who were present expressed frustration with the board for not seeking mandates, including one unidentified man who was removed from the room after vocalizing his complaints.

Elliott, in turn, expressed his frustration with those who believe COVID-19 to be a farce.

“I can’t believe how many people actually believe that it doesn’t exist … It is real,” said Elliott. 

Boardmember Georgia Hanigan echoed Elliott’s concern for health-care capacity.

“I’m glad to see that these are recommendations on our agenda,” said Hanigan

Purdy noted that available space remains a consideration should the possibility of density limits come up, and that so far ”nobody’s models have been correct” as far as transmission modeling.

“As far as our schools go, our kids are very low risk … Sixty-four feet, we’re going to run out of real estate,” said Purdy.

Dale made the motion to approve issuing the recommendations to wear a face covering and limit gathering capacity in yellow or higher alert areas, as well as temporarily suspend visitation at senior living and correctional facilities when new cases happen or the alert level is red.  Aberasturi seconded the motion. The vote to approve was 6-1, with Purdy voting against. 

The meeting adjourned afterwards, in spite of disapproval from members of the public.

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