By Ben Olson
When the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Idaho in March, there was a brief period when the majority of the community rallied together to follow the advice of health professionals to limit the spread of the deadly disease. However, as the weeks wore on, more and more segments of the population began questioning the science behind the decision to lock down the state to help reduce cases of the virus and “flatten the curve” of infection.
While many of the local forums on Facebook were rampant with misinformation campaigns attempting to label COVID-19 a “hoax” or comparing it to the seasonal flu, one page has continued to stand as a clearing house of data-driven information that stayed above the political fray: the Panhandle Health District.
Every day around noon, employees with PHD release COVID-19 information that encompasses their district, which includes Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai, Benewah and Shoshone counties. The posts include useful information about how many cases have been added, how many COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized, how many have recovered and a variety of other answers to the robust comments section that follows each post.
Scrolling through the comments on PHD’s latest posts, it’s clear that the district has embraced its mission to stick to the science and data in responses to users’ comments while avoiding political discussions as a rule. That tack has been mostly applauded by those who use the site, looking for useful, accurate and timely information without descending into the ongoing political discussion about COVID-19.
PHD Public Information Officer Katherine Hoyer said communicating information through Facebook and answering comments from the public has been a 24/7 job.
“We are working around the clock,” Hoyer said. “It’s a lot.”
Hoyer handles the daunting task of updating the public on weekdays, while Program Manager Kim Young has stepped in to take care of weekend posts. They are just two of the 130 employees at PHD, which has been in operation since about 1970. Both say the data-driven approach on their Facebook page has been by design.
“We try to expand our posts to include the information that people are asking for,” Hoyer told the Reader. “But obviously, we could write a book on that subject. It’s important to answer the questions in comments, as well. It can get a little repetitive, but if we continue to do that, we can keep the public informed, which is our goal.”
Hoyer said direct feedback through comments has helped PHD provide more complete information to the public.
“I provide a list of FAQ’s to the staff, and that’s what our call center uses to answer these questions,” Hoyer said. “We also use data from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and WHO [World Health Organization], and our clinicians here are great resources, and our epidemiologists are great sources for how contract tracing works.”
“Kate has made it really simple for anyone on staff to help her out because she’s so knowledgeable about having a consistent message to follow,” Young said.
“We always try to answer as soon as we can, but for our own mental stability we do have to walk away from our devices,” Hoyer said.
Both Hoyer and Young said they often take deep breaths, go outside, walk with their pets and spouses, and work in their gardens to help alleviate the stress of the ongoing information cycle.
Hoyer said one commonly asked question whenever a new case comes up in the area is to ask where the patient worked, or where they may have exposed others. While this might be helpful information to the general public, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects patient privacy, prohibits PHD from sharing any private information about COVID-19 patients’ medical history.
“We always try to keep HIPAA in mind,” Hoyer said. “We’re always thinking of the patient themselves, too. Nobody wants to be outed that they have a communicable disease. … There is a delicate balance between patient privacy and providing information to protect the public.”
As many parts of the COVID-19 pandemic have become bones of contention among some members of the community — an example being resistance to contact tracing as an invasion of privacy — Hoyer said it’s important to remember that PHD has been conducting voluntary contact tracing for years before this pandemic.
“Sometimes the public doesn’t completely understand what PHD does,” Hoyer said. “We’re contact tracing year round with communicable diseases — there are over 70 communicable diseases in Idaho that we do contact tracing for.”
Hoyer said PHD often checks in with the person to see how they’re doing, if they’re feeling better or worse, if they need medical attention. Contact tracing is always voluntary, and Hoyer said thus far they haven’t had much of a problem with people refusing to participate.
“The hardest part is when we can’t get a hold of somebody,” she said. “Mostly people are compliant. … We rely on the person’s willingness to help us and we explain to them that they’re helping us by protecting their friends and loved ones they may have had close contact with.”
Another common comment PHD gets is from people suggesting that the recent spike in COVID-19 numbers in the district is due to an increase in testing. Hoyer said it’s not that simple.
“Overall, in Idaho, there has been an increase in testing,” she said. “In our area, there has been a slight increase in testing, but that doesn’t mean we’re not seeing outbreaks in social settings.”
Hoyer said an increase of cases are coming from wherever people are gathering in public — especially bars.
“We can remain open but we have to do so safely,” she said. “That’s how we’re going to keep our businesses open.”
Some on social media argue that allowing a larger segment of the population to contract COVID-19 will lead to herd immunity. Again, Hoyer said it’s not that simple.
“Herd immunity would require a large population to be infected,” she said. “The problem for that is, we don’t have a treatment for COVID-19, and there’s no vaccine. That’s especially frightening if we just allowed it to run rampant. One death is too many. One hospitalization is too many. People are becoming severely ill nationwide and people are dying, and I don’t think anyone wants to take that chance.”
When some compare COVID-19 to the seasonal flu, Hoyer said it’s an invalid comparison.
“In the beginning, they wanted to compare it to the flu … you can’t,” she said. “Looking at the mortality rate of the flu, that’s not possible because there are vaccines and treatments for the flu, but we don’t have that for COVID-19.”
Another obstacle Hoyer said that sometimes makes PHD’s job more difficult is when elected officials attempt to convince the public that COVID-19 isn’t as serious as it is.
“It certainly doesn’t make our jobs easier,” Hoyer said. “But we continue to reiterate the guidance we’ve been saying from the beginning. We’re listening to the CDC and WHO, we’re sticking to the science and the data.”
Moving forward, Hoyer said the main thing she’d like to see on the PHD Facebook page is for people to stop attacking one another.
“We can handle the attacks on us, but when I see people attacking each other, it’s disheartening,” she said. “People come to our page to find information, so if we could all stick to the facts, that would be great.”
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