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Gov. Little orders Idaho back to Stage 2 of reopening, mobilizes National Guard for COVID-19 response

BOISE — Gov. Brad Little announced Nov. 13 he’s moving Idaho back to Stage 2 of reopening as COVID-19 cases swell across the state, and mobilizing the Idaho National Guard to aid in the state’s response.

On Oct. 26, the governor moved the state back from the more-permissive Stage 4 to a modified Stage 3, imposing limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and requiring social distancing and other measures. Friday’s announcement takes that further, prohibiting all gatherings of 10 or more people. Religious or political gatherings are exempted.

The new order doesn’t require any businesses or schools to close; bars, nightclubs and restaurants could continue to operate if they serve seated patrons only and observe precautions including spacing, as under the previous modified Stage 3 order.

“I believe it is a crisis situation,” the governor said, calling the current pandemic “an unprecedented and dangerous time in our state’s history.”Little didn’t issue a statewide mask mandate, but urged Idahoans to wear masks to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and decried those defying the local mask orders that already cover roughly half of the state’s population.

“Law enforcement cannot be everywhere all the time,” he said. “That is why I maintain this comes down to personal responsibility. Please, wear a mask whenever you’re around another person who is not in your household, so we can protect lives, preserve health care access for all of us, and continue our economic rebound.”

The Idaho National Guard mobilization, for which the governor issued an executive order, calls for 100 members to be mobilized to active duty for such functions as supporting mobile testing, medical facility decontamination, COVID-19 screenings, planning and logistics support. The mobilization will last for 30 days unless renewed.

The new Stage 2 public health order takes effect at midnight, 11 hours after the governor announced it, and will remain in effect until it’s extended, rescinded, superseded or amended.

Little brought in two special guest speakers whose message appeared to profoundly move the governor along with many of those watching: Amelia Cortez, a young woman who landed in intensive care at St. Luke’s while giving birth to her baby, and who four months later still must carry an oxygen tank with her everywhere she goes; and Rachel Thain, a St. Luke’s respiratory therapist who treated Cortez.

“When I first got sick with coronavirus, I thought I was just pregnant — out of breath,” Cortez said. “But little did I know that COVID was taking over my body and my lungs were shutting down. … I did not expect to be fighting for my life for the next three weeks. The next day, I gave birth to my daughter, and I knew I had to be separated from her due to this pandemic, and inside I cried, because I was too weak to cry on the outside.”

”My OB/GYN held my daughter, and I remember saying, ‘Is that my baby?’” she recalled. “And I let out a cheer.”She experienced delirium and hallucinations, and at one point, argued strenuously for her new baby daughter to be sent home to her mom, only to find out that that already had happened, and she’d lost three days.

“I was in the ICU alone, and without my daughter, without my family,” she said. “I was connected to a machine on the wall that would breathe for me.”

“When I got out of the hospital, my mother had to bathe me, she had to dress me, she had to brush my hair, help me with my makeup. I could not walk 10 steps without feeling like I was going to collapse. And at night, it seems to get worse. … I don’t want to see any of my loved ones or anybody else out there experience what I went through.”She said, “To my peers, I really hope that you guys can really understand where I’m coming from and take this seriously, because I almost lost my life. And I am, as you can see, still dealing with the repercussions. I am not able to work, and I have to carry around an oxygen tank with me wherever I go.”

“Especially for my age group, I feel like a lot of us young adults, we like to go out with our friends, we like to go out to dinner, and we tend to get careless,” she said. “And I think we as young adults need to activate and wake up, because this thing, COVID is real, and it’s here to attack our lungs. … We need to be more careful and take more precaution.”

Thain said, “We’re seeing an influx of young patients. Some of my sickest patients have been in their 20s and 30s. … Though they might not die from COVID or COVID complications, they are experiencing symptoms months later.”

She noted Cortez was in the hospital in July. “You can have cardiac issues. … We’re finding that our very sick patients are on life support machines for two to three weeks, that’s damaging alone as it is.”“Droplet masks are proven to work, OK? This is science,” she said. “People tell me how they feel about masks, and unfortunately, feelings are not facts. The fact is, I have been a respiratory therapist for almost 18 years. Every time I enter a patient’s room that has contagious respiratory virus, I wear my droplet mask,” she said. “When that patient leaves the room, they wear their droplet mask. That is what we have always done. … This is not new science, people.”

“The difference is COVID is so contagious and so widespread that we are now asking the community to do what we have been doing for my entire health care career,” Thain said. “We’ll wear our masks to protect you. Please wear your mask to protect us.”

“Masks do work,” she added. “We are not seeing an influx of Ada County patients, OK? Where masks are being more readily worn. We are seeing an influx of patients from outlying counties. … Everybody, no matter how small your town is or where you live, we just need to do it. We are a community. We need to take care of each other.

Idaho Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, who will join the Idaho Senate next month and who serves on the governor’s Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee, issued a Democratic response on Friday afternoon calling Little’s moves “another Band-Aid,” saying the state needs to do more.

“The governor acknowledged in his press conference that our hospitals are weeks away from having to ration care because many people are not wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, and many state and local leaders are not taking the threat seriously or encouraging responsibility in their communities,” Wintrow said. “We implore Gov. Little and other GOP leaders to find the compassion to prioritize the lives of Idahoans over political fights.”Asked if he had a message for his fellow Idaho GOP politicians, including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and several legislators, who have continued to oppose masks and other measures to stem the spread of the virus, Little said, “They are all independently elected, and they do what they do and I do what I do.”

He said, “We have to make the case for how critical it is,” and said, “Frankly, I should have been doing a better job earlier by getting the Amelias and Rachels out in front of the people of Idaho. … Because what we’ve been pleading every two weeks obviously hasn’t been working as well as we’d like to see it.”Idaho Press reporter Thomas Plank contributed.

Treasure Valley schools struggle to find substitute teachers during pandemic

TREASURE VALLEY — A shortage of substitute teachers is one of the impacts of reopening schools during a pandemic, Treasure Valley schools are finding.

In the Marsing School District, the superintendent’s administrative assistant had to sub in a classroom last month because the district couldn’t reach a substitute teacher in time.

The Nampa School District and Vallivue School District raised the daily wage for substitute teachers from $80 to $95 this week, hoping to attract more people interested in subbing. Vallivue made the same salary increase, and the Middleton School District increased its pay from $80 to $90 per day.

The Vallivue School District had a record-breaking 27 unfilled positions on Thursday because there were not enough substitute teachers available. Joseph Palmer, spokesman for the Vallivue School District, said in a typical school year, the maximum unfilled positions the district would see at a time is 10.

An unfilled position means the district has to pull people away from other responsibilities to sit in a classroom, said Palmer.

“Most subs are parents and grandparents,” said Nampa School District spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck, referring to all of the teaching that’s gone on at home during remote learning. “Parents are not available when their kids are at home, grandparents are helping educate grandkids.”

Some veteran substitute teachers are now choosing other work instead out of concern of contracting COVID-19 in a classroom, Palmer and Tuck said.

The Middleton School District is experiencing the same worries among substitute teachers that Nampa and Vallivue are. Superintendent Kristin Beck said the district’s subs fall into the high-risk categories for COVID-19 and often think about the fact that they are likely subbing for a teacher who was exposed or sick with the virus.

From Nov. 2-6, the Middleton School District had 29 unfilled teacher and aide positions.

“When this occurs, the district has to dismantle intervention programs to use aides as substitutes and combine classes that are already at capacity to deal with the shortages,” Beck said. “On the worst days, administrators have to step in and become teachers.”

The Vallivue School District opened in a hybrid model in August, with students in the classroom two days a week and at home three days a week. Nampa has been in the same model since September. The Middleton School District also opened in a hybrid model in August, and the school board last month decided to start opening schools for full time, in-person learning, starting with elementary schools. Middle and high schools are set to reopen Monday.

Cyndi Hutchison, English Language teacher and the Middleton School District migrant coordinator, told the school board last month that if she gets sick she knows she won’t be able to find a substitute for her classes.

“In fact, there have been days at the middle school that there were no subs available and teachers had to cover (each other’s) classes,” Hutchison wrote to the school board in public comment.

Beck said in addition to struggling to find substitute teachers, the district is struggling to hire paraprofessionals, who help with instruction and supervision in the schools. The paraprofessional shortage is especially evident in special education programs, she said.

The Nampa School District has 246 substitute teachers, Tuck said, but its goal is to have a pool of 300. The Vallivue School District also shares a pool of substitute teachers with Nampa, Caldwell, Middleton, West Ada and Homedale. Palmer said the district’s pool of active subs is 240.

One of the Nampa School District’s main concerns is that the quarantine period for people with the virus and people with potential exposure to the virus is 10 to 14 days. Substitute teachers are used to working one or two days in a row; they now may be needed to work 10 to 14 or even more days.

The Caldwell School District had around 107 registered substitute teachers, however they all can’t be plugged into any classroom, said district spokeswoman Allison Westfall. She said some subs will only work in specific schools and for specific teachers.

“Some (of our subs) are subbing for other districts (that) have been open for in-person learning longer than we have, for example Vallivue,” Westfall said in an email. “We remained concerned about our sub pool.”

Joe Biden captures Georgia in race for the White House

ATLANTA — Joe Biden became the first Democrat to capture Georgia in a presidential contest in nearly three decades by narrowly defeating President Donald Trump, transforming the state from a Republican stronghold to one of the nation's major electoral battlegrounds.

Fueled by new support in the suburbs and soaring turnout in cities, Biden did something no other Democrat has accomplished since 1992. Though he clinched the presidency days ago, the victory here was a capstone for Democrats who struggled for years to change the state's political landscape.

It was a razor-thin win, with Biden ahead by roughly 14,000 votes. Several media outlets projected Biden's victory in Georgia early Friday afternoon, as election staffers began a statewide recount of the nearly 5 million ballots cast in the presidential race. State officials have said the results will not change the outcome.

And it came as voters prepared for another election that will test whether Trump's defeat in Georgia heralds greater political change. Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue face Jan. 5 runoffs that will likely determine control of the U.S. Senate — and shape Biden's legislative agenda.

The flip was the result of years of painstaking work from Democrats led by Stacey Abrams, who registered hundreds of thousands of new voters, energized supporters by embracing liberal positions and made inroads to areas once dominated by Republicans.

But it was hastened by Trump, whose 5-point victory in Georgia in 2016 signaled the beginning of a political shift. He narrowly lost Cobb and Gwinnett counties, once-reliably Republican areas that hadn't voted Democratic in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter's era. Since then, the suburbs have only turned a deeper shade of blue.

Biden surpassed Trump in the vote count Nov. 6 as mail-in ballots from densely populated counties slowly but steadily ate into an early cushion Trump built with Election Day returns across more rural stretches of Georgia.

Tallies of absentee ballots in Clayton County put Biden over the top to stay, lending what Democrats called an element of poetic justice to the flip. Parts of the deeply Democratic county were represented by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, one of Trump's most vocal critics before the congressman died in July.

Still, the networks didn't call the race for Georgia until a week later, as the final provisional, overseas and military votes were tallied.

Trump's campaign is planning to request a recount of the vote, and it picked U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, to lead the effort. That can't take place until the vote is certified by the state, which is set to happen by Nov. 20.

Right now, a separate manual recount of the ballots ordered by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is underway to confirm the outcome of the race. His office said it doesn't expect the results to substantially change Biden's 14,000-vote lead.

The Associated Press is among the outlets that have yet to call the race, saying that the margin is so thin it won't project a winner in a contest subject to a recount.

Surging turnout has helped make Georgia a toss-up. Thanks to an influx of mail-in ballots triggered by the pandemic, nearly 4 million Georgians cast ballots before Election Day. That's almost as many as voted during the entire 2016 election — at the time the highest turnout ever for Georgia.

The voting population has vastly changed since the last presidential election. A record 7.6 million Georgians are registered to vote, including more than 1 million new voters since 2016 that have made the electorate slightly younger and more racially diverse.