The Southwest District Health board took the easy way out Thursday (July 23) by issuing a recommendation and not a mandate to wear a face covering.
Even with chickening out, board members were heckled, booed and yelled at by disrespectful members of the public who attended the meeting.
It’s worth noting that Canyon County, one of six counties covered by the Southwest District Health Department, is one of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in Idaho. Its rolling seven-day average of new cases is now at 75.3 cases per 100,000, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute, which deems any number above 25 new cases a tipping point that requires stay-at-home orders.
Thursday’s meeting and decision once again highlight the limitations of our state’s system of public health districts, established by law 50 years ago.
The state is divided into seven separate, autonomous districts charged with protecting the public health. They do so with boards of health that can issue health orders, the violation of which is a misdemeanor, according to the law, passed in 1970.
The boards, though, are populated by county commissioners, with one physician representative. This turns those public health decisions into decisions based on politics and public opinion, not on science, medical expertise or data.
As evidenced by some members of the public shouting, “I hope you all get voted out,” (for issuing a recommendation, mind you), the elected officials face pressure to make a decision based on public sentiment and not on science or sense. And if that public sentiment is based on false information and conspiracy theories, that’s a dangerous place for health districts to be.
This same board had been scheduled to meet recently with the CEOs of Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s and West Valley Medical Center, as well as medical directors and other experts in the field. Unfortunately, that meeting was canceled when some members of the public disrupted the meeting and shoved an employee out of the way to gain entrance into the Southwest District Health building.
Now, two weeks later, instead of hearing from medical experts, board members heard from fellow board member Viki Purdy, an Adams County commissioner who has posted anti-mask memes on social media, has called the pandemic a lie and has made posts on social media that Facebook had to remove because it was “misinformation.”
Without testimony from a single hospital official, Purdy, a dairy farmer and rancher, made assertions about hospital capacity, and without hearing from a single epidemiologist or medical expert, Purdy made assertions about the transmissibility of COVID-19 among children.
It should be noted that St. Luke’s did provide advance written testimony, which provides necessary context for some of what was said during the meeting. For example, Purdy said in the meeting hospitals were “50 percent full,” but that includes neo-natal beds, the OBGYN unit and pediatrics — units that are not used to treat COVID patients and do not have the equipment to treat an adult with COVID-19. As of Thursday afternoon, St. Luke’s Health System medical director Dr. Laura McGeorge said, the Nampa ICU had only one bed open.
But board members don’t seem to be listening to medical experts, who having been warning of an impending crisis and urging mask mandates. They seem to be listening to the angry voices who frame mask mandates as an infringement on essential liberty.
When board member Tom Dale, Canyon County commissioner, simply uttered the phrase “contact tracing,” members of the public began booing him.
Board chairman Bryan Elliott, Gem County commissioner, said six public employees in Gem County have contracted COVID-19, including a sheriff’s deputy who told Elliott, “I thought this was all a farce.”
Elliott said, “Well, I guess he knows it isn’t. I can’t believe how many people actually believe it doesn’t exist.”
In the end, board members voted, 6-1, with Purdy voting no, to recommend face coverings in public areas, to limit the density of people at events to a minimum of 1 person per 64 square feet and to temporarily suspend visitation to older adult living and correctional facilities when new cases of COVID-19 are detected within the facility or when the Health Alert Level is “red” (High).
This same group is the board that supposedly will be making recommendations to school districts on whether to reopen or not in just a couple of weeks.
If this board is going to continue to make decisions based on false information, not medical experts and hospital officials, and is going to kowtow to an ignorant, politically driven portion of the public, we question its ability to make the right call on whether it’s wise to send our kids back to school.
© Copyright 2020, Times-News 132 Fairfield ST W 83301
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