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Muddy mandate

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | September 11, 2021 1:00 AM

Expansive new federal vaccine mandates ordered this week by President Joe Biden will affect health care workers and education employees throughout Idaho — but exactly how remains to be seen.

Under the new order, employees who work at health facilities that treat patients on Medicare or Medicaid will be required to be vaccinated.

That includes hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgery settings and home health agencies.

Kootenai Health spokesperson Kim Anderson said Friday it will take time for employers to determine what the vaccine rules mean for them.

That includes the hospital, which employs more than 3,600 people and has about 550 open positions.

“Kootenai Health’s administrative team will be working to better understand the many details behind this announcement,” she said.

The vaccination requirement for nursing facilities will also apply to nursing home staff, affecting more than 30 facilities throughout North Idaho.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense will double the number of teams of clinicians deployed to support hospitals battling a surge in COVID-19 cases.

A DOD team comprised of nurses, physicians and respiratory therapists arrived in Coeur d’Alene this week to assist staff at Kootenai Health, where rising COVID-19 cases have pushed the hospital to crisis standards of care.

“This help could not come at a better time,” Dr. Robert Scoggins, chief of staff and medical director of Critical Care at Kootenai Health, said earlier this week. “Our staff is stretched to the limit.”

Alongside new vaccine requirements for private businesses, Biden announced steps to encourage K-12 schools to mandate masks and require vaccines for employees.

The federal government provides about 8% of total funds spent on public schools.

Biden promised financial help to school districts that face penalties for enacting or enforcing mask mandates in states that have banned them.

The grant program will be called Project SAFE (Supporting America’s Families and Educators) and will be funded under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Coeur d’Alene School District, which employs more than 1,000 people across 19 schools, does not require that employees get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We ask our employees to let us know if they have been fully vaccinated,” district communications director Scott Maben said Friday.

So far, the school district has collected 569 records of fully vaccinated employees.

That number includes a mix of teachers and classified employees, full-time and part-time employees.

It also includes staff who were vaccinated last school year and have since retired or otherwise left the district.

Meanwhile, teachers and staff directly employed or funded by the federal government are now subject to a vaccine requirement.

That includes Bureau of Indian Education-operated schools and Head Start and Early Head Start preschool programs for children in poverty.

There are Head Start centers throughout North Idaho — in Coeur d’Alene, Rathdrum, Post Falls, Kellogg, Sandpoint, St. Maries and Bonners Ferry.

In Idaho, about 40% of people over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated. It’s one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Since the beginning of the most recent surge, 97% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at Kootenai Health are unvaccinated.

Data from IDHW shows the overwhelming majority of people who are dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Infections among vaccinated people, called breakthrough infections, are rare.

Vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 are likely to experience a much milder case than they would have without vaccination.

Kootenai Health has not admitted a single patient for adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine, the hospital reported this week.