By Zach Hagadone and Lyndsie Kiebert
Trustees of the Lake Pend Oreille School District at their regular meeting Dec. 8 reiterated a commitment to keeping schools open amid the ongoing — and spiking — COVID-19 pandemic, voting to adopt recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allow for the easing of quarantine protocols. The vote was unanimous absent Trustee Lonnie Williams.
School leaders agreed that LPOSD policy should be altered to allow for the period of quarantine to be lowered from 14 days to 10 days — provided the student, staff or faculty member has experienced no symptoms since contact with the virus and without a test — or seven days with a negative test result, provided that test was administered at least five days after an incident of close contact with an infected individual.
“I think the more we can relax it, the better,” said Trustee Board Chairman Cary Kelly.
The meeting included a moment of recognition for Tommy Lund, 66, a well-liked school bus driver on the Schweitzer route who died Nov. 22 at Kootenai Health from complications due to COVID-19.
Noting that Lund was “loved by the children,” LPOSD Superintendent Tom Albertson said, “It has taken its toll on the department and rightly so.”
Albertson offered a “heartfelt thank-you” to District Transit Director James Koehler, noting, “this is one of the most challenging times for your department.”
Koehler said his team members “put their hearts and souls into their jobs every day.”
Paying gratitude to Koehler, Kelly said, “He’s pulled through and done a fantastic job.”
Lund’s death underscored the degree to which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the school district — both in its mourning for his loss and the real threat it faces to the health and its functioning in the community.
Albertson noted that Bonner General Health is currently at 86% capacity, with five of eight so-called “COVID beds” taken. Three individuals are in surgical care and two are in intensive care. Panhandle Health District reported Dec. 9 new cases numbering 419, bringing the total to 12,116 since monitoring began in the spring. As of Dec. 9, health officials had closed 8,118 cases due to death, refusal for further monitoring or recovery.
Meanwhile, “we are seeing an uptick in schools,” Albertson said.
According to LPOSD reporting, there have been a total of 64 cases of the virus in the district — 15 of which are active, including three each at Sandpoint High School, Clark Fork, Sandpoint Middle schools; two each at Farmin-Stidwell and Hope elementaries; and one each at Kootenai Elementary and the Homeschool Academy.
Albertson stated that each case “is a separate story,” going on to say that “some have been in direct contact with an infected person, others not; yet, per testing, warranting status as an active case.
While the issue of masking and social distancing has become ever more politically charged, Albertson said that parents, guardians and school officials should be prepared for the possibility of remote learning: “It would be short-sighted if we weren’t prepared as a community or prepared as a family,” he said, adding, “It’s tough, and we need to be thinking about some things.”
Trustees Kelly, Lewis and Suppiger, as well as Purley Decker, felt that the current LPOSD plan — which is a modified version of the “yellow” threat protocol earlier approved by the board — is working well enough, applauding district officials for avoiding the community-wide level of spread that has increased steadily since the summer.
Kelly said the effect of transmission should be reevaluated after the Christmas break; for now, he said, the extrapolations of widened illness are “academic.”
Trustee Gary Suppiger applauded the current plan, saying, “It’s working. It has flexibility … I don’t see any reason now to change it.”
Board Vice-Chair Gerlaldine Lewis, in making the motion to relax quarantine rules — which she supported with reference to the reporting of “light to zero spread within cohort groups [of students],” said of the CDC guidelines, “It is acceptable to go to this little bit easier quarantine rules that the CDC has come out with.”
Trustees heard a number of testimonials — all emailed and read aloud during the meeting — urging in strong language to refuse any COVID-19 mitigation measures.
One individual, Cheri Tilford, of Sandpoint, stated that she homeschools her child and also has enrolled them in the Homeschool Academy. She argued, “There is not one bit of evidence that there is a new virus here,” and referred to masks as “fear muzzles.”
“This is about controlling the people,” Tilford added, going on to repeat that COVID-19 protocols are “propaganda,” “superstition” and “public control measures” that can be readily dismissed by looking “behind the mainstream curtain.”
Bryan Lorentzen, of Cocollala, went much further, calling COVID-19 “a joke, a hoax, a nothing event.”
He added that not only do masks not help prevent COVID-19, but there is no evidence that it’s even a virus, nor that it’s even a pandemic.
“The coronavirus would disappear overnight if people stopped getting tested,” he stated.
What’s more, he wrote to trustees, the “propaganda” of COVID-19 policies is being “pushed to control populations and track our movements”; that, Lorentzen added, “cover for the great reset” — a conspiracy theory.
Finally, Lorentzen called trustees “ignorant,” “uneducated” and “perverts,” referring to their efforts to formulate COVID-19 policy as “torturous melodramas.”
Elsewhere in Idaho, contention surrounding local control over pandemic restrictions hit an all-time high on Dec. 8 when Ada County Commissioner and Central District Health Board Member Diana Lachiondo had to abruptly leave a health district meeting because she received a call that her home was being inundated with anti-mask protestors.
“My 12-year-old son is home alone right now and there are protestors banging outside the door,” Lachiondo told her fellow board members before exiting the Zoom meeting in tears.
The meeting ended soon after at the prompting of the Boise mayor and police chief, who urged the health district to adjourn in the interest of public safety. The Associated Press reports that hundreds of protesters filled the CDH parking lot during the meeting holding signs reading, “No Muzzles,” and, “Mandates have not stopped the spread. Try liberty instead!” At least three CDH board members had protesters show up at their homes Tuesday.
Boise Mayor Lauren McLean issued a statement after the events, saying that the “health board is being asked to make decisions at the local level in lieu of statewide action, and when taking this job seriously — doing everything they can to help address the spread of COVID, they’re threatened and intimidated. No child should be frightened by a mob of protesters, no local official should fear violence for their public service.”
Idaho Governor Brad Little has declined to enact a statewide mask mandate, leaving restriction-making to health boards and municipalities instead. He released a statement Dec. 8 condemning the protests held outside the public officials’ homes, calling it a “bullying tactic.”
“Our right to free speech should not be used to intimidate and scare others,” he said. “There is no place for this behavior in Idaho. I urge calm among Idahoans so we can get through the pandemic together, stronger.”
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 2,298 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 on Dec. 9, bringing the statewide total since tracking began in March to 116,203. To date, 1,103 Idahoans have died from virus-related causes.
The Panhandle Health District shared revised isolation guidance Dec. 8 for asymptomatic close contacts of COVID-positive people — the guidance which LPOSD adopted that same day. Health officials stated that “the 14 days of isolation is still best practice and is the safest way to avoid spreading this virus,” however, “the following are options for asymptomatic close contacts of a positive case to shorten isolation and are acceptable alternatives to reduce the burden of isolation on individuals, families, and businesses.”
The CDC and Idaho health authorities report that “isolation can end after Day 10 from last close contact with the positive case without testing and if no symptoms have been reported during daily monitoring.” With this strategy, “residual post-isolation transmission risk is estimated to be about 1% with an upper limit of about 10%,” according to PHD.
Officials are also now saying that isolation of a close contact can end after Day 7 “if a diagnostic PCR specimen tests negative and if no symptoms were reported during daily monitoring. The specimen may be collected and tested within 48 hours before the time of planned isolation discontinuation (e.g., in anticipation of testing delays), but isolation cannot be discontinued earlier than after Day 7.” Post-isolation transmission risk with this strategy, according to PHD, is estimated to be about 5-12%.
“Regardless of what option you choose to follow, symptom monitoring, masking, hand hygiene, and physical distancing must continue through Day 14,” PHD officials said in Tuesday’s statement, adding that the isolation alternatives do not apply to those living in long-term care facilities, correctional institutions, group homes or rehabilitation facilities. “If at any time an individual develops symptoms during their 14 days after their exposure to an individual who tested positive, they should isolate and seek testing.”
Gov. Brad Little is slated to hold a virtual press conference Thursday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. PST to discuss the state’s pandemic response. Watch it live online at idahoptv.org/shows/idahoinsession/governor.
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