Monday, July 06, 2020
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COVID surge creates Ironwood traffic jams

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | June 30, 2020 4:01 PM

A woman leaned back in the driver’s seat of her Toyota sedan in exasperated boredom, her elderly passenger waiting beside her. Both women hastily put on their masks as the driver rolled her window down for an interview.

“We’ve been here since a little after nine,” said Marla, the driver, who did not wish to give her last name or the name of her aunt beside her. “It feels like we’ve been here forever.”

Marla has cared for her aunt for two years, she said, moving into her Post Falls house to tend to her day-to-day needs. Today’s particular needs includes driving her aunt to Kootenai Health’s COVID-19 drive-thru testing facility along Ironwood Place. But instead of pulling her car underneath the awning of the testing site, she sat in her Camry behind the Ronald McDonald House across the street just after 11 a.m., idling with hundreds of other carloads as they patiently waited their turn to be tested for the coronavirus.

“We’ll get there,” Marla insisted optimistically as the procession advanced one car length. “One way or another.”

Parking and security staff confirmed the wait times Tuesday averaged from two to three hours, while some drivers reported the wait, at times, reached up to six hours. The two lines from the site stretched from its driveway north toward the freeway, around the Ronald McDonald house, back onto the street and up to Ironwood Drive, where cars backed up in both directions toward Highway 95 and Government Way.

Health officials say the traffic build-up that’s accumulated the past few days outside the testing site is due to a surge in COVID-19 that has spread here in North Idaho, across the state and around the country. Worldwide, the disease has infected more than 10 million confirmed patients, killing more than half a million.

With 2.7 million infections, the United States has seen more COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world. The nation’s death toll has reached nearly 130,000 since the pandemic began.

As states have gradually opened up travel and commerce, COVID-19 infections have risen in kind, though the numbers over the past 10 days have spiked dramatically. Panhandle Health District reported 30 new cases on Tuesday alone, bringing the five northernmost counties’ totals to 315 confirmed cases. In comparison, Panhandle Health reported a total of 27 cases on March 29, four days after Gov. Brad Little issued his emergency stay-home order.

All of this comes in the days before 4th of July weekend, typically the busiest travel and gathering weekend of the summer.

“We’re definitely able to link more and more cases into clusters and connections into social settings,” said Katherine Hoyer, public information officer for Panhandle Health. “We’re seeing where people are not practicing the precautions recommended. We’re seeing little to no mask-wearing. Social distancing isn’t happening.”

Hoyer added the public health district has been active in conversations with Kootenai Health on how the organization can increase the area’s testing capacity. It’s a problem, hospital officials say, with different avenues for solutions but no easy fix.

“With the increase in cases in our community, more people are wanting to be tested and are requesting referrals,” said Andrea Nagel, communications coordinator for Kootenai Health. “Because of the sudden increase in demand, our testing center is experiencing longer lines and wait times.”

Nagel said last week’s drive-thru numbers averaged around 215 tests at the Ironwood Place site. On Monday, that number hit 431, and she estimated more 500 would pass through for testing by Tuesday’s end.

“We are doing the best we can with our current resources and are working to extend the hours of our current testing site,” Nagel said. “We are currently working with Panhandle Health District and other community agencies to explore the addition of another test collection location in our community. We recommend that those wanting to be tested contact their primary care office, Panhandle Health District or an Urgent Care (site) for a phone screening and to get a referral, if appropriate.”

She said that Kootenai Health is currently researching a possible solution by scheduling test times online in order to reduce traffic and minimize the wait.

“And, of course,” Nagel added, “we’re asking the community to follow the recommended protocol of hand-washing, distancing from others and wearing a face mask in public.”

Marla, meanwhile, inched her Camry further as her place in line moved forward by one. “We’ll get there,” she said from behind her mask. “It’s just something we have to get through today. I guess this is just another part of the new normal.”