By Lyndsie Kiebert
Messages surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic in Idaho are becoming increasingly more optimistic, with Gov. Brad Little taking a tone of near-victory in a March 2 statement announcing a $39 million FEMA grant has been awarded to the Idaho Office of Emergency Management to assist in COVID-19 vaccine efforts.
“We are in the final lap of the pandemic fight, and the finish line is close,” Little said, adding that his emergency declaration in response to the pandemic — enacted on March 13, 2020 — was “critical” in order for the state to secure the federal funds.
The extra funding, Little said, is “pushing us ever-closer to normalcy.”
By these measures, Idaho — and the entire world — has been operating somewhere outside of “normalcy” for about a year. Coverage of COVID-19 first appeared in the Sandpoint Reader on March 5, 2020, in an article titled “‘It is containable’: Bonner County agencies are taking precautions to prepare for the coronavirus.”
At the time, there were no known cases of COVID-19 in Idaho.
A year later, on March 3, the state has logged 172,288 cases of the virus, and 1,876 Idahoans have died of COVID-19. In Bonner County, 2,991 residents have been recorded as having the virus, and 33 locals have lost their lives in the pandemic fight.
That fight hasn’t just been against the virus, but also between people. North Idaho has proven over the past year to be a hotbed of opposition to health orders and other measures taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, resulting in protests, lawsuits and countless heated political exchanges.
Even amid the us-versus-them atmosphere, the virus brought out ingenuity and teamwork among some of the community’s most integral organizations. Health care, education, municipal government and business adapted, arriving at what now seems like a major turning point in the coronavirus saga: The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced March 2 that Idahoans who fall under the vaccination eligibility subgroup 2.3 — “frontline essential workers” such as those employed in agriculture, manufacturing, grocery stores or with the U.S. Postal Service — will become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on March 15, two weeks ahead of schedule.
Idaho reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 13, 2020. Within two weeks, on March 25, Little and IDHW officials enacted a statewide Stay Home Order, which required “Idaho residents to stay and work from home as much as possible while ensuring all essential services and business remain available.”
During the ensuing months, Little introduced his four-stage Idaho Rebounds plan, which provided a timeline for reopening certain businesses and outlined social distancing protocols for all Idahoans.
Meanwhile, local institutions began to adapt. Bonner General Health CEO Sheryl Rickard told the Reader that the pandemic “transformed many of the practices” at BGH.
“Some of those have gone back to normal and some will never be what they were before,” she wrote in a March 2 email.
“Our community got us through the worst part of the supply shortage,” Rickard added, noting that people donated N95 and homemade masks, bonnets and gowns.
Rickard said a silver lining of the pandemic has been the teamwork displayed by the hospital’s various departments.
“I’ve been inspired by the dedication, selflessness and resilience of our entire BGH hospital team,” she said.
The Lake Pend Oreille School District closed schools on March 17, 2020, moving entirely to remote learning for the remainder of the school year. Superintendent Tom Albertson told the Reader that the transition was “difficult,” though not as difficult as developing a reopening plan for the 2020-2021 school year. When it came to getting children into classrooms during a pandemic, Albertson said there was “no blueprint.”
Since September, LPOSD schools have been operating with shortened days, virus-mitigating protocols — such as masking and distancing — and providing families with the choice to keep their students home with access to remote learning.
“Having the vaccine for our staff has brought some sense of relief but we are still cautious, watching data closely,” Albertson said March 1, noting that LPOSD is currently in the pre-registration process for next school year, and “hopeful for a full school day with limited interruptions.”
“This has been a big challenge for me and everyone involved, but I am thankful for the partnership with staff and parents in making our way through these times,” he added.
The Panhandle Health District case-tracking dashboard shows North Idaho’s first major wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in late July. Cases slowly went down for a couple of months, until October launched the area into new, harrowing territory.
Bonner County reported its first COVID-related deaths on Oct. 14 — a man and woman, both in their 80s — and the most dramatic spike in local cases commenced soon after. The most cases logged in one day in the five northern counties came on Dec. 9, when 410 residents were reported as having the virus. The health district logged its highest one-day number of hospitalizations Dec. 23, with 95 individuals needing medical care due to the virus. The rise and fall of virus-related deaths per day mirrored those peaks, with eight North Idahoans dying in a single day on Jan. 7.
All those opposed
Central to pandemic life in Bonner County has been a consistent and vocal opposition to efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Idaho saw two organized Disobey Idaho protests — one in Boise, and the other on the Long Bridge in Sandpoint — in response to Little’s health orders. The East Bonner County Library District became a battleground for the debate over masks, when protestors inundated the Sandpoint Library in July.
The debate persisted inside of Sandpoint City Council chambers, when two attempts to enact a mask mandate failed in July and August. When PHD enacted a panhandle-wide mask mandate in November, Bonner County and Sandpoint law enforcement took a stance of education, not enforcement.
Bonner County went so far as to threaten to defund PHD, with Commissioner Steve Bradshaw alleging that the health district was acting “outside of their authoritative boundaries” and violating people’s “fundamental right” to “breathe free” with its mandate.
County legal counsel determined Bradshaw’s motion to defund PHD — presented informally during a public comment period — was illegal.
The commissioners also issued a proclamation May 28 opposing Idaho’s Stage 2 Stay Healthy order, arguing that the order’s objectives “are unconstitutional and replicate methods used in command-and-control societies such as China.” While Commissioners Dan McDonald and Bradshaw voted in favor of the proclamation, Commissioner Jeff Connolly voted against.
A light at the end of the tunnel
Daniel Holland, director of diagnostic imaging at BGH, said his team was put in charge of organizing the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics because they’re experienced with “volume scheduling.” In other words, getting two shots into thousands of people’s arms at three- to four-week intervals requires some serious planning, and BGH is starting to get the hang of it.
“Overall, it’s been a very surprisingly smooth process,” Holland said.
As of March 3, 3,556 Bonner County residents have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 3,229 have received both doses and are considered fully vaccinated. Across Idaho, those numbers are 121,561 and 136,027, respectively.
Providers such as BGH, Kaniksu Health Services, Sandpoint Family Health Center, Sandpoint Super Drug and some other pharmacies are taking the lead on vaccinating Bonner County residents. The Panhandle Health District is not currently offering its own clinics in the county because the entire weekly dose allocation is going to community providers who stepped up to assist with distribution. However, PHD announced March 3 that it plans to host a clinic in Bonner County “later this month.”
Holland said the county is currently receiving between 500-1,000 doses a week, with recent weeks tipping into the more plentiful range. Still, BGH is only scheduling a week of appointments at a time in order to make sure every appointment has a guaranteed dose. Those who wish to register can do so at bonnergeneral.org, and they will receive a call when an appointment is available. Kaniksu Health Services is also offering online vaccine registration at kaniksuhealthservices.org.
The sentiment that Idaho is approaching “normalcy” almost a year after the start of the pandemic is reflected in the local health care community’s approach to the virus — an approach that has gone from reactive to proactive at BGH in recent weeks, Holland said.
“Most of the time, we’ve had to change things and been reactive to new research … and try to protect ourselves,” he said, “but this is something we can kind of be aggressive with and kind of go after it.”
Those with questions about COVID-19 or receiving a vaccine in North Idaho can call the Panhandle Health District hotline at 877-415-5225.
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