North Idaho confirms first case of COVID-19

One person has tested positive for COVID-19 in North Idaho, health officials announced this afternoon. But they say there are currently no plans to close restaurants or businesses like Washington has. 

click to enlarge CDC ILLUSTRATION
CDC illustration

"There is certainly not a mandate to close restaurants, businesses or bars," says Chief Chris Way, a unified incident commander for Kootenai County Emergency Medical Services System. "That is not something we plan on doing at this time."

The Panhandle Health District says a man in his 60s has tested positive and is currently self-isolating in another state. It's the first case of novel coronavirus in North Idaho and the 12th in the state.

Lora Whalen, director of Panhandle Health District, says epidemiologists are tracing close contacts of the individual. She would not release which state the man is currently self-isolating in.

"There is no need to panic," Whalen says.

She says Panhandle Health is sticking with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends that people work from home whenever possible and avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people, discretionary travel, shopping, and visiting nursing or retirement homes.

But Karen Yao, a Coeur d’Alene-based virologist who studied at Johns Hopkins University, thinks North Idaho could be doing more to help curb the spread of the virus. Right now, there isn’t widespread testing to identify the virus and isolate it. And in the absence of a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, social distancing is the only way to slow it down. Closing dine-in restaurants and bars would help, she says. 

“Those are places where people gather and socialize — you often have 30-50 people hanging out at those places,” she says. “The whole point of that is to slow down the spread so that hospitals won’t get overwhelmed.” 

While Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools, dine-in restaurants and bars closed in Washington, Idaho Gov. Brad Little has given no such order. Restaurants in Coeur d'Alene and North Idaho remain open — though Panhandle Health has been recommending restaurants take measures to avoid crowds. Panhandle Health District serves Kootenai, Bonner, Shoshone, Boundary and Benewah counties.

"We've been in communication with many of them about social distancing and proper sanitation," says Katherine Hoyer, public information officer for Panhandle Health District. "We are asking restaurants to try to do more delivery pick up and take-out."

In declining to order a statewide closure of schools, Little said over the weekend that those decisions should be made by local officials. Coeur d'Alene Public Schools announced that school would be closed through April 6. The school district is now providing child care to some students whose parents work in health care or emergency services. Meals are also provided at eight schools in Coeur d'Alene. Post Falls School District also announced school closures this week

Yesterday, Panhandle Health District told the Inlander it was not operating as if community spread was occurring in North Idaho, despite the proximity to Spokane, which now has nine confirmed cases. 

Yao, however, notes that Spokane and North Idaho are very connected, with people going to and from for a variety of reasons. Plus, there are cases in Montana as well. She says people should assume COVID-19 is in North Idaho because the state hasn’t tested enough people to find cases. She adds that it’s likely for every one confirmed case, there are 10 others that have not yet been picked up. 

“If I were a public health official, I would caution people to take precautions as if we have community spread happening,” Yao says.

Yao says it’s unrealistic to have businesses closed down until there is a vaccine, but it’s worth implementing stricter social distancing measures now to know how well it works. That way, it can serve as sort of a baseline to know how much is needed to slow the spread of the virus.

When asked why Panhandle Health is not taking the same measures as Washington, Hoyer says it's because Washington is handling the issue differently statewide.

"We're just going to be in line with the White House's recommendations," she says. "This is all still guidance."

Hoyer adds that the health district has sent guidance to long-term care and assisted living facilities in North Idaho, trying to make sure that seniors don't congregate in community centers and limiting visitors. She says some facilities are taking temperatures of any visitors before they walk in, and some have shut down visitation altogether.

"It's up to each individual facility," Hoyer says. "Our guidance would be to not have sick individuals visit, for sure. That's what our messaging has been."

Dr. Karen Cabell, Chief Physician Executive at Kootenai Health, says the hospital is doing everything it can to prepare for an influx of patients in order to reduce the impact for the most vulnerable in the population. But she says, “just like other areas of the state and country, we are seeing difficulties in turnaround time for tests results.” She says Kootenai has been taking 150 test samples a day for the last few days. 

Way, the Kootenai EMS system chief, says that they are doing everything they can to keep people safe.

"We are not in crisis mode. I cannot stress that enough," Way says. "We are not panicking and we are asking you to not do the same. We are relaxed, we are confident in our abilities to manage this crisis, and we will continue to prepare and get ready for what is coming."

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.