PHD changes testing protocol as local COVID-19 cases climb

Across Idaho, localized measures are put in place to slow the spread of the virus

By Lyndsie Kiebert and Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Panhandle Health District announced that beginning July 14, people seeking tests for the novel coronavirus should use their primary care provider. Moving forward, PHD will only be writing test orders for uninsured individuals who also do not have a primary care provider. 

“Due to the increased number of COVID-19 positive cases in our community, PHD will be focusing our resources on the public health function of contact tracing in order to slow the spread of the virus,” PHD officials stated in a July 13 press release.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare logged 727 new cases of the virus July 15, bringing the statewide total to 12,445 confirmed and probable cases and 110 deaths. 

Bonner County reached 87 cases as of noon July 15 — 57 of which were active. That marks a 1,142.9% increase in Bonner County cases since Idaho entered Stage 4 of its economic reopening plan June 13, when the county had only seven cases.

PHD — which oversees the five northern counties of Idaho — suggests that those who display symptoms of the virus or who have experienced “recent known or suspected exposure” to a person who had tested positive for COVID-19 should seek testing.

PHD lists symptoms of COVID-19 as “fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.”

The health district defines “close contact” with a COVID-positive individual as within six feet of the person for longer than 15 minutes. Those who suspect close contact are encouraged to stay home and maintain social distance with those in their home. PHD also suggests checking temperatures twice daily and watching for virus symptoms.

“It’s important not to test too early after exposure as the virus takes time to build in your system and show up on a test,” PHD officials said. “Wait five to eight days after your exposure if you wish to be tested and remain isolated.”

The mood in the southern regions of the state is one of alarm.

Following a record one-day number of new cases July 13 for both Idaho (509) and Ada County (285), where the state capital of Boise is also the county seat, the Central District Board of Health on July 14 mandated the wearing of face masks in both indoor and outdoor public places where social distancing is not possible. The mandate covers roughly 481,000 people — the largest population center in the state.  

Meanwhile, leaders from six of the biggest health care systems in Idaho — located in southern and central Idaho — gathered July 14 to issue a series of warnings about rampant COVID-19 transmission and plead that the public, as well as elected officials, do more to stem the tide of infections.

Leaders of Saint Alphonsus Health System in Boise said they expect their inpatient volume to double by mid-August. St. Luke’s Health System, also in Boise, anticipates admissions will double every two weeks. St. Luke’s and Saint Al’s are by far the biggest health systems in Idaho.

“The numbers are frightening, the trends are more than concerning but we know that we have the opportunity to turn this around,” said Saint Alphonsus Chief Clinical Officer Steven Nemerson in the virtual joint news conference.

St. Luke’s President and CEO Chris Roth emphasized that “we’re calling on all members of the community to contact your local and state officials, boards, commissions — all those who have the ability to make policy. Please contact them and urge them to require face coverings as a community expectation. We collectively would like to see a mandate relative to masking.”

Gov. Brad Little has resisted that such a mandate come from the state; rather, in early July he devolved almost all decision-making relative to COVID-19 response to local communities and health districts.

All this comes as health care workers around the state mourn the death of Samantha Hickey, a 45-year-old pediatric nurse practitioner in the St. Luke’s system who died July 13 from complications related to COVID-19. She left behind a husband and four children. 

“Samantha’s death is a heartbreaking consequence of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic,” St. Luke’s stated in a press release.

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