Idaho’s COVID-19 test positivity rate reached a new high and increased for the ninth consecutive week Thursday.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported a rate of 17.8% statewide on 37,507 tests for the week of Nov. 8-14. That’s up from a previous high of 16.7% on 36,877 tests for Nov. 1-7.

Health experts say a rate below 5% demonstrates control over the spread of the virus. The Gem State last saw a rate below 5% in mid-June.

South Central Public Health District reported the highest rate out of the state’s seven public health districts at 23.2%. Southeastern Idaho Public Health had the lowest rate at 10.7%. Boise-based Central District Health and Southwest District Health saw their rates increase to 15.8% and 20.1%, respectively.

Idaho’s seven-day moving average also established a new all-time high Thursday at 1,398.6 cases per day. The average has increased by 69.7% since Nov. 1, when it sat at 824.1 cases per day.

The state’s seven public health districts reported a combined 1,279 new confirmed and 299 new probable cases for 1,578 total cases on Thursday. The 1,279 confirmed cases is the third-largest single-day figure, while the 1,578 total cases is the fourth-most.

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Idaho has seen 75,420 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, plus 12,894 probable cases. Health and Welfare estimates that 36,831 of those cases have recovered.

There were 23 new coronavirus-related deaths announced Thursday — the second-most in a single day — across 11 counties.

Idaho has lost 837 residents to the virus, with a case fatality rate of about 0.95%.

At the end of the day Thursday, Health and Welfare reported that 444,226 people had been tested statewide. About 17% of those have been positive for COVID-19.

Mask order in Panhandle Health District

The district board of health for the Panhandle Health District, which consists of Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone counties, implemented an emergency order Thursday for the wearing of face coverings in public.

The board cited an increase in hospitalizations for patients with COVID-19 at Kootenai Health, the main health system in Kootenai County, and a growing concern that the health care provider would not be able to provide appropriate levels of care for all patients if the upward trend continued at the current rate.

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The order is effective immediately and will be in effect for approximately 60 days leading up to the board’s January 2021 meeting.

According to the order, every person in the district is required to wear a face covering that completely covers the nose and mouth when in a public place and physical distancing of 6 feet cannot be maintained.

Public places include, but are not limited to, retail business establishments, government offices, medical, educational, arts and recreational institutions, public transportation, and outdoor public areas such as parks, trails, streets, sidewalks, lines for entry, exit or service.

Violation of or failure to comply with the order could constitute a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment or both.

Panhandle is the first Idaho health district to impose a districtwide mask mandate. Districts have implemented mandates in select counties, including Ada County.

The Pocatello City Council, which is served by Southeastern Idaho Public Health, also approved a mask order Thursday, according to EastIdahoNews.com. After a 30-day education period, people who don’t follow the Pocatello ordinance will be cited with an infraction and fined $50.

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Magic Valley health board narrowly votes down mask mandate

The board members of South Central Public Health District narrowly voted down a public health order that would have mandated masks throughout the district and instituted fines and possible jail time for offenders.

The order failed 5-4.

The health district, which is based in Twin Falls, covers eight counties in the largely rural, agricultural Magic Valley region where cases have been surging for several weeks. St. Luke’s Magic Valley, the largest hospital in the region and one of the largest in the state, has diverted ICU patients several times in the last few weeks because of an influx of patients with COVID-19.

Before the vote, Idaho health care leaders warned their hospitals were reaching capacity. Dr. Jim Souza of St. Luke’s health system said Idaho hospitals could be forced to begin implementing crisis standards of care by December. This means hospitals would have to ration care, access to ICU beds and who gets treatment from overworked, dwindling hospital staff.

“I do not want to send a message for our front-line staff, our medical staff, our friends and our neighbors that they’re not important, because they are,” Twin Falls County Commissioner Brent Reinke said during an initial vote to table the mask mandate indefinitely. That motion also failed 5-4, and Reinke later voted against the implementation of the mask mandate, citing a “liberty issue” and claiming the enforcement of the mandate would overwhelm law enforcement.

Blaine County’s representative, county commissioner Angenie McCleary, replied that a vote against a mask mandate was sending that exact message.

“We’ve heard very, very clearly from our medical community what action they want us to take,” McCleary said.

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Many of the representatives against the mandate said they were voting in accordance with the wishes of the county commissioners, other local leaders and constituents they represented. Tracy Haskin, the representative from Minidoka who voted in favor of the mandate, did the opposite.

“I have been instructed by a split vote of my commissioners to vote no on this, but I will not be able to do that with a clear conscience,” Haskin said.

After the health board voted against the mandate, loud cheers erupted from the public meeting room, where Boise State Public Radio reported very few members of the public appeared to be wearing masks, and most spoke against the proposed mandate.

“Our constituents are speaking,” one board member said in response to the cheers.

On Wednesday night, the Rexburg City Council met to discuss a possible mask mandate, but city leaders decided not to pursue the ordinance for now, according to EastIdahoNews.com

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

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©2020 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

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