Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Primary Health Group has seen a a 14-22% infection rate. Earlier versions of the story indicated that was true of healthcare providers in general, instead of Primary Health Group alone.
BOISE — Ada County is moving back to Stage 3 of reopening as cases of COVID-19 have exploded in recent weeks, Central District Health announced Monday.
Health district officials said the county’s numbers of infection were higher than they have been since late March and early April, and said the infection rate rivals that of Blaine County’s rate earlier in the pandemic — which at one point had one of the highest rates in the country.
Central District Health Director Russ Duke made the announcement in a virtual press conference Monday afternoon. He said he would be signing a public health order — effective at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday — moving the county back a stage.
The order means bars, which were allowed to reopen in Stage 3 of the governor’s reopening plan, will be required to close in Ada County, and public and private gatherings of over 50 people will be banned. The order also requires a 14-day quarantine for all visitors to the state who are coming from an area outside of Idaho highly affected by the virus, Duke said.
Dine-in restaurants will remain open, but if they have a bar top area, that area must be closed, he said. Movie theaters will also stay open, so long as they comply with the district’s social distancing requirements.
Masks aren’t mandatory, but Duke said that could change if the district’s commissioners feel it’s necessary.
Duke also noted the regression in stages doesn’t apply to the health district’s other three counties — Valley, Boise and Elmore — because of their low case numbers.
COMMUNITYWIDE ACTIVE SPREAD
Officials during the press conference said they’d seen cases “explode.” They said Ada County had 25 cases three weeks ago, 57 cases the week after that, and 303 cases in this past week.
“Starting on Monday, June 15, we started seeing a noticeable increase in cases,” Duke said.
They also noted the effects of the coronavirus’ spread take seven to 10 days to show up in the data.
Ada County has a total of 1,100 cases and 22 deaths, according to the health district.
“We’ve seen (emergency room) visits increase, almost doubling,” said Dr. Ted Epperly, a family practice physician and member of Central District Health’s Board of Health.
Primary Health Group doctors have seen positive testing rates of 15-22% in the last 10 days, a marked increase of their baseline from roughly 5%, Epperly said. Twenty-four additional cases were reported Monday morning from over the weekend, he said.
“That puts us, really, in a positivity rate that approaches that of Blaine County, which you all know was the epicenter and the highest … in the entire United States at one point in the outbreak,” Epperly said. “That’s why this is a problem.”
Epperly noted that the problem was more than just infected people going to bars and nightclubs at this point, calling it a “communitywide active spread.”
He also said it takes two to 14 days for an infected person to show symptoms. So people testing positive today were probably infected between seven and 10 days ago, he said.
“And what happened this last weekend, in terms of activities in Boise, Father’s Day, all the activities that we all participated in, will not appear, until seven to 10 days from now,” he said. “So what we’re facing with data that’s now a couple weeks old is really a major outbreak, let alone what it’ll be in two weeks from now.”
Ada County residents infected by the coronavirus are also spreading it at a much higher rate than elsewhere in the country, Epperly said. In Ada County, each person who becomes sick, on average, spreads it to seven other people, officials believe. The average across the country is between two and three — and the average for the flu is one.
“So you can just imagine the multiplication factor of this,” Epperly said. “If the infectivity rate is sevenfold, then you can see the fact that indeed a lot of people can get infection from an unknowing family member. This starts to have a major impact, then, for older people in the homes.”
FRUSTRATION FROM BAR OWNERS
Bar owners in a written statement Monday expressed frustration with the lack of notice leading up to the mandatory closure of bars.
“This is a direct attack on the bars,” Jason Kovac, who owns Silly Birch, Whiskey Bar and Tom Grainey’s in Boise, is quoted as saying. “We followed all the protocols and guidance CDH set. We asked patrons to wear masks, some required them, we had hand sanitizer and our bars were so empty that all social distancing requirements were exceeded. Now, without any warning, we’re being told we have to shut down again. We have been blindsided.”
Several bar owners on Thursday had just met with officials from Central District Health, and they’d discussed safety protocols to put in place, including requiring customers to wear masks.
“We all thought we were on the same page after our Thursday meeting. We would continue to follow their recommendations and go above and beyond to keep our establishments safe and healthy,” said Rocci Johnson, Humpin’ Hannah’s co-owner, in a written statement. “We believe we acted in good faith, but that is certainly not being reciprocated when we have received no communication from anyone at CDH that this was going to happen.”
Duke said he felt bad about the economic effect of the order, but stood by the need to put it in place. He said the data on case numbers didn’t come together fully until the middle and the end of last week.
“We had no choice,” he said.
Ada County Sheriff Steve Bartlett, who also spoke during the press conference, said he would be in contact with police chiefs in the Treasure Valley to ensure law enforcement agrees on how the order will be enforced.
He said his office would be working with the Idaho State Police’s Alcohol Beverage Control Division to enforce the order, and said the approach will be the same one law enforcement took during earlier stages of reopening when businesses were not allowed to be open.
“I am very hopeful we will be able to gain compliance through education,” Bartlett said.
COVID-19 made it to Boise’s homeless shelter system after three months of no positive tests.
Jodi Peterson-Stigers, executive director of Interfaith Sanctuary, said over 200 tests were conducted in her shelter, Boise Rescue Mission and the Women’s and Children’s Alliance emergency shelter over the weekend after someone tested positive at one of the Boise Rescue Mission’s facilities. Peterson-Stigers is managing Cottonwood Suites, the hotel the city of Boise is leasing as a place for those experiencing homelessness who test positive to recover and isolate.
So far, nine people have tested positive and were moved to the Cottonwood Suites to recover until they have no symptoms and have two negative tests. Another unsheltered homeless resident was to arrive at the Cottonwood later Monday, and two more positive patients are receiving care at the VA Medical Center. Ninety tests are still pending, Peterson-Stigers said.
She said all of the positive tests have come from Boise Rescue Mission, but because she could not give any identifying information she did not say if it was from the River of Life Men’s Shelter or City Light Home for Women and Children. Boise Rescue Mission CEO Rev. Bill Roscoe could not be immediately reached for comment.
Because of the outbreak in the homeless community, Peterson-Stigers said Interfaith Sanctuary has stepped up its protocols to try to slow the virus spread. All guests are asked if they have been to the Boise Rescue Mission upon entering, masks are required on the property and social distancing at the shelter during meals and other times is being enforced.
“We’ve kept all of our protocols in place, and we’re being very vigilant now,” she said.