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Panhandle Health board to meet on masks

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | January 26, 2021 1:09 AM

Panhandle Health’s board will meet Thursday to debate the merits of continuing a mask mandate.

The board implemented a district-wide mask mandate for Idaho’s five northernmost counties on Nov. 19. That mandate — which covers Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai, Benewah and Shoshone counties — is set to expire at the end of the month.

Thursday’s vote comes as the area appears to be coming down from the strongest wave of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths since the pandemic began.

Panhandle Health reported 258 new cases over the weekend, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the Idaho Panhandle over the 20,000 threshold to 20,151.

Hospitalizations also have been on the decline since early January, with Kootenai Health’s in-patient numbers dropping to 39, including 15 in critical care units. Three new deaths reported over the weekend brings the number of districtwide COVID-19 fatalities to 224.

The Nov. 19 mask mandate was the second of two implemented by the board since the beginning of the pandemic. The first order, signed July 25, brought forth a hearty and sustained opposition, with sustained local protests rallying in front of the Kootenai County Courthouse, in Coeur d’Alene’s downtown district and outside Panhandle Health’s Hayden offices.

That order affected only Kootenai County, which at the time was seeing a more substantial rise in coronavirus infections than anywhere else in North Idaho.

Political developments have shaped one of the most dynamic and divisive local issues since the board voted 4-2 to implement the second mask mandate. Newly elected Sheriff Robert Norris wrote in a recent open letter that his department will not enforce the mask mandate. Calling the mandate unenforceable, he added that wearing masks should be personal choices, all while equating the coronavirus to something resembling the flu among lower-risk populations.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to get between you, your health and your doctor,” Norris wrote Jan. 11.

Norris’s decision mimicked former Sheriff Ben Wolfinger’s similar statements in mid-July, when he told the Panhandle Health board he considered a mask mandate unenforceable, as well.

While many residents in North Idaho wear masks, many others do not. Panhandle Health’s staff — a group of health care professionals, office staff and volunteers responsible for the day-to-day operations of the health district — presents data to the board, so board members make informed decisions.

Those recommendations align with recommendations from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to continue to promote the wearing of masks, regardless of the politics.

“Masks are an effective, non-pharmaceutical measure we can all take to help prevent the further spread of COVID,” said Katherine Hoyer, public information officer for Panhandle Health.

Hoyer emphasized that the staff at Panhandle Health has little to no say over the board’s decision this week. She said anyone wishing to voice their input in advance to the board can email their concerns to boardofhealth@phd1.idaho.gov no later than 5 p.m. Wednesday.

The Panhandle Health board will meet at its Hayden headquarters at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. The meeting is open to the public, but because of Gov. Brad Little’s re-opening protocols, room capacity is limited. The proceedings will be broadcast on the health district’s YouTube channel.