Idaho’s virus cases reach 5, gov declines to close schools

March 15, 2020 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little declined to order a statewide closure of schools on Sunday, instead telling school leaders that the decision on whether to close to slow the spread of coronavirus should be made locally.

Little made the decision one day after state public health officials announced that the number of Idaho residents infected with the virus had jumped to five, and a few hours after the Idaho Education Association teacher’s union urged the governor to close schools statewide for at least three weeks.

During a conference call with school leaders, Little said that he knew it was a tough decision but believed it was one best made locally, in conjunction with local public health officials.

“Given the circumstances we have now, we need to do all we can to escalate awareness and preparedness,” Little said. “Prepare for the worst-case scenario, but we should also de-escalate alarmism — and that is critical.”

Currently, school districts have the ability to exclude students who are diagnosed or suspected of having COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Districts can also order schools closed with an order from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare or from a local public health district.

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen, who was also on the call, said school closures put a burden on some healthcare workers. Jeppesen said that’s because they may have to work fewer hours or stop working altogether to care for children who are home all day.

“I will tell you up front that the CDC and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare bias is that we would prefer for schools to stay open at this time,” Jeppesen said, using the acronym for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There’s no epidemiological evidence that closing schools actually slows the spread of the disease.”

Jeppesen also said the number of confirmed cases is likely to grow as community spread of the virus accelerates, so closing schools too soon could mean they are closed for longer than necessary.

“Make sure that you have clear plans for when you reopen, how you do that,” he said.

Idaho public health officials announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease called by the novel coronavirus, on Friday. By Saturday evening the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare had confirmed that four more people had tested positive for the illness.

They included two in Ada County, one in Blaine County, one in eastern Idaho’s Teton County and one in the south-central Idaho public health district. Health officials did not say where in the district the patient lives, but it includes Twin Falls, Cassia, Jerome, Minidoka, Gooding, Lincoln, Camas and Blaine counties.

All but one of the patients are under the age of 60 and recovering at home, public health officials said. The woman in the south-central district is over the age of 70 and is being treated at a hospital.

Several public schools across the state, including some in Blaine County and the northern Idaho city of Coeur d’Alene, announced closures last week. Boise State University students will attend classes online for the remainder of the semester, and the Idaho Steelheads hockey team announced that the rest of its season is canceled.

The Idaho Supreme Court suspended in-person court appearances except for emergencies last week, and it asked people to postpone or reschedule civil and criminal cases when possible. The Ada County Courthouse banned most people from the building unless they work there or are otherwise directly involved with cases, such as attorneys, witnesses and victim support workers.

On Sunday morning, Idaho Education Association president Layne McInelly urged the governor to close schools statewide in an effort to slow the spread of the virus so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed by a huge number of patients at once. The practice is often called “flattening the curve,” a reference to graphs that show how many patients could be expected to become critically ill at one time.

“Education leaders are uniquely positioned to help ‘flatten the curve’ and stave off a massive health crisis,” McInnelly said in a prepared statement. “Recognizing that school buildings often hold more than 250 people, five days a week, we must close our schools immediately for the health of our communities, students and staff.”