IDAHO FALLS — Governor Brad Little and Dave Jeppesen, the Director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, stopped by EastIdahoNews.com Friday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.
Here is an edited transcript of their conversation with EastIdahoNews.com reporter Nate Eaton.
Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com: Governor Little, what update can you give us today as far as the spread of COVID-19 in the state of Idaho?
Gov. Brad Little: Last night we announced that in Blaine County we had limited community spread. Consistent with our message all along, the Director of Health and Welfare is issuing an isolation order for people to stay home, stay in, ramp up social distancing and do everything we can to stop the spread in Blaine County.
Eaton: Are you predicting anything like that happening in eastern Idaho?
Little: We’re a long way from that but things are moving very fast globally and nationally. We’re being adaptive and we’ve adopted the Centers for Disease Control standards. That’s the state of the art science and the public health districts here in Idaho are the lead.
Eaton: Dave, let’s talk about the tests. It seems like the numbers of positive cases were small and gradually trickling in over the past few days. Are we expecting a major boom here once all these tests come back?
Dave Jeppesen, Director of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare: We actually have seen an increase in positive cases that have come back in Blaine County. We know that community spread has started there and so we are expecting to see more cases in Blaine County which is why we issued the isolation order there. Around the rest of the state, I want to emphasize that we have not seen community spread – at least not at this point. The situation could change hourly or daily and if it does, we will update and communicate with communities.
I also want to emphasize on the isolation order that citizens are still free to do essential services. The grocery stores are going to be open, the health care system is still operative and utilities are still operating. But we’re encouraging citizens to stay home because that’s the best tool we have to make sure the virus doesn’t continue to spread.
Eaton: There are a lot of people who have been staying home this week and a lot of moms going stir crazy with the kids. How long as we looking at being in self-isolation? Are we still going to be in this situation in May or June?
Jeppesen: We’re currently doing our modeling at the state level to get a feel for that. We really want to spread this curve out and not overwhelm the health care system. What that means is this will probably be around for a while. If we look at what’s happened elsewhere in the world, this isn’t something that just goes away in a week or two. We do have guidance from the CDC over the next 15 days to keep groups down to 10 or less to try and slow the spread but we shouldn’t interpret that at the end of 15 days, this will all be done and gone away with. I think we’re in here for the long haul.
Eaton: Governor, I was speaking to somebody yesterday who said the virus is scary but they’re more nervous about the economy. What do you foresee this doing to Idaho – especially small businesses like restaurants and bars?
Little: Obviously our number one priority is the safety of Idahoans but that’s also safety as far as security – food security and the security of your home. That’s very important. I talked to Senator Risch’s and Senator Crapo’s staff yesterday. There’s going to be a big federal program that’s going to be here and we as governors have said we’re more than willing to help administer it.
There are some things we’re doing on licensing, some things we’re doing on taxes that if you had a job a week ago and you don’t have a job today, that’s a crisis. We want to address that. We’ve talked to utilities about what they can do about their understanding and compassion for people who can’t pay their power bills or pay their utilities. We’re trying to address all of those different things and we’re trying to reach out to landlords through realtors about what they do for evictions of people who don’t have a paycheck.
There is going to be some cash from the federal government. We are really changing what we are doing for people who qualify for unemployment. We’re remodeling the Department of Employment and we know they’re going to have a huge surge of people applying for unemployment. Two weeks ago we had the least unemployment of any state in the union and some of our counties had hardly any unemployment. It’s happened in such a real, real short period of time. So we’re being as adaptive as possible. We’re fortunate that over the years we’ve gone to an online model.
What Director Jeppesen does on the SNAP program and the WIC program is we’re trying to make it so we can get those benefits to people as fast as possible. I know the Department of Health and Welfare, when all the states are ranked as far as efficiency in delivering services, we’re one of the most efficient there is. But that doesn’t help the person who had a job a week ago and doesn’t have a job today.
Eaton: Do we know the long term impacts on schools? Are kids going to be going to school in June and July to make up for all this time?
Little: Four years ago we had “snowmageddon” and we did extend the school year. I’ve got a task force working with superintendents from all over the state today talking about what we need to do. Some schools saw that instead of shutting school down the next day, they waited for a day or two so teachers and administrators could work with kids and families and people could arrange for daycare with their kids. Literally a week ago kids left school on Friday and on Monday there was no school. I gave school districts the flexibility but I also wanted them to make provisions for these kids to have programs from a nutritional standpoint but also to continue their education. We don’t know what day kids will go back to school but we’re hoping this school year and we’re going to continue to monitor that on a day by day basis.
Eaton: I think everybody agrees with you that this all happened so fast. Two weeks ago we were somewhat talking about this and here we are in a studio sitting six feet apart. You brought a chart. Dave, can you explain it?
Jeppesen: This is the curve of how the virus could spread. There are two important concepts on here. The first is the red flatline. That represents our health care capacity and the goal here is we don’t want to exceed our health care capacity. If everybody gets sick at once, that’s going to overwhelm our health care capacity and we don’t want to do that.
We’re doing two things – one is we’re working on raising that red line and increasing health care capacity. With the governor’s executive order declaring a state of emergency, that loosens up licensing requirements and waived many federal requirements to allow hospitals and health care providers much more flexibility to raise capacity in the system.
The second is what we’re doing – sitting six feet apart to slow the spread down so that when we do get to the peak, it is at or near our health care capacity. That’s why it’s so critical that people practice good hygiene, wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes and then practice social distancing. We know this is a waterborne virus. Sneezes and coughs tend to go about six feet – that’s why we ask people to be six feet apart so you don’t get affected by that. If you have cold symptoms, please stay home in self-isolation. You don’t want to spread this to your neighbors or coworkers and we want to flatten that curve out.
For more information, visit the Idaho coronavirus website here.
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