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Mask mandate ends for Kootenai County amid surge in COVID-19 cases

The announcement comes as Kootenai Health is nearing capacity due to a "rapid increase" in COVID-19 spread and activity in the community.

KOOTENAI COUNTY, Idaho — As coronavirus cases in North Idaho reach an unprecedented level, the Panhandle Health District board voted 4-3 to rescind the face mask mandate in Kootenai County on Thursday.

The board indicated that a recommendation to wear masks remains in place. 

The health district moved two counties to its highest COVID-19 risk category for the first time on Thursday. This decision from health officials could impose more restrictions on schools and business. 

Kootenai and Boundary Counties are moving into the "Substantial (Red)" risk category, while Shoshone County moved into the "Moderate (Orange)" category. Bonner and Benewah counties remain in the "Minimal (Yellow)" risk category. 

Tap here to watch the meeting of Panhandle Health District's Board of Health

The move for Kootenai and Boundary Counties comes as Kootenai Health is nearing capacity and may have to transfer patients elsewhere. The hospital announced on Wednesday that it was 99% full. 

Twenty-seven COVID-19 patients are receiving treatment at the hospital as of Thursday morning, with 11 of them requiring critical care.

“At Kootenai Health, we are witnessing a rapid increase in the COVID-19 spread and activity in our community," said Chief Physician Executive Karen Cabell said in an interview with KREM on Wednesday.

Kootenai County has exceeded its previous COVID-19 peak that spanned from mid-July to mid-August, an expert said during the board meeting on Thursday. He added that there may be some cases of coronavirus reinfection in North Idaho. 

County risk categories are reviewed and updated every Thursday, the health district said. The key metrics that PHD uses include positivity rate, hospitalizations and a seven-day rolling average of cases per county. 

The metrics under the substantial risk category are:

  • New daily cases greater than 30 per 100,000 over a seven-day rolling average
  • Positivity rate of higher than 20%
  • Hospital capacity, including ICU, consistently at or above 100% and surge capacity cannot be maintained; or Crisis Standards of Care implemented

Both Kootenai and Boundary counties have exceeded the incidence rate threshold outlined in metrics of the substantial risk category, according to statistics provided at the board meeting. 

The incidence rate in Boundary County is sitting at about 40 to 45 cases per 100,000 and Kootenai County's incidence rate is hovering around 37 cases per 100,000. 

RELATED: School districts in two North Idaho counties to consider reopening plan changes

COVID-19 cases surge in North Idaho, Spokane County

Idaho is seeing its largest coronavirus spike since the pandemic began, with new cases increasing statewide by 46.5% percent over the past two weeks, according to the Associated Press. The state is currently sixth in the nation for new cases per capita, with a positivity rate of just over 15% —  one of the highest in the nation.

Panhandle Health District reported 112 COVID-19 cases and no new deaths in Idaho's five northern counties on Thursday, Oct. 22. On Tuesday, North Idaho saw the largest single-day jump in cases since the pandemic began at 141.

Coronavirus numbers in Kootenai County are as follows: 

  • Total cases: 4,722
  • Total deaths: 73
  • Total hospitalizations: 260

Spokane Regional Health District reported 104 new coronavirus cases and four new deaths on Thurssday, Oct. 22. 

RELATED: Spokane County sees more than 100 COVID-19 cases eight times so far in October

There are 17 ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Spokane County, including four that are new within the past week, Spokane Regional Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said during a press conference on Wednesday.  

Coronavirus numbers in Spokane County are as follows: 

  • Total cases: 9,018
  • Total deaths: 192
  • Total hospitalizations: 472
  • Current hospitalizations: 30

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had previously ordered a temporary halt to elective medical surgeries in March to free up enough protective gear for medical staff. Hospitals in the state resumed such procedures in mid-May. 

Elective surgeries were also on hold from the end of March through early May in Idaho. Some hospitals in the southern portion of the state recently postponed them again to ensure there is room for an expected influx of COVID-19 patients, the Associated Press reports.  

Kootenai Health is working to keep all of its service lines open, but the canceling of elective surgeries is a possibility for the future if those staff members are needed in other areas, a spokesperson told KREM's Taylor Viydo. 

Amid a surge in coronavirus cases and an increasing incidence rate in Spokane County, Lutz said last week that the tightening of restrictions is a "possibility" for the area. He did not outline what possible modifications might entail. 

RELATED: Tightened restrictions are 'possibility' for Spokane County as COVID-19 rates climb, Dr. Lutz says

Spokane hospitals have capacity to treat patients 

Though the pandemic has put stress on Spokane County's health care system, area hospitals say they currently have capacity to treat patients. 

Providence Health Care wrote in a statement to KREM that its hospitals in Spokane "have capacity to treat patients for regular and emergency needs."

"Although our patient census is high, we remain open and available for care," the statement from Providence reads in part. 

MultiCare said in a statement that Deaconess and Valley Hospitals "have capacity to treat patients and are prepared to care for our community." 

The Spokane Regional Health District also issued a statement, saying, "The occupancy data for Spokane County is below the Washington State Health Care Systems Readiness Targets, however, we are seeing stressors on the health care system. Our local hospitals have indicated that they have capacity to treat patients for regular and emergency needs in spite of the challenges they face while treating COVID-19 patents."

The Washington State Health Care Systems Readiness Targets is less than 80% licensed bed occupancy by patients and less than 10% of licensed beds occupied by suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the health district. 

Kootenai Health could transfer patients to Portland, Seattle

There will be limited opportunities to transfer Kootenai Health patients to other facilities once the hospital is at capacity, according to a press release. Kootenai Health is currently looking at hospitals in Seattle or Portland to find space for transferring patients, but it is "very limited."

Cabell said Kootenai Health has a backlog of patients that need care, and other facilities are asking the hospital to accept and transfer them. The hospital nearing capacity at its current levels is "unprecedented," she added.

Kootenai Health will not turn anybody away, Cabell said. There may, however, be long wait times and patients might receive treatment in different locations such as the waiting room.

Kootenai Health faces staffing shortage amid capacity concerns

Kootenai Health is also facing a current shortage of staff due to difficulties in finding and recruiting nurses, including traveling nurses from other communities. Additionally, the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests conducted at Kootenai Health is at its highest point since the start of the pandemic. 

Some employees have also caught coronavirus outside of work through activities or loved ones, while others are unsure of where they contracted the virus and it may have happened at work, Cabell said. 

Leaders at Kootenai Health said they anticipate the usual increase in illnesses and hospitalizations with the onset of cold and flu season, which will affect already stretched resources. 

RELATED: Fall and winter could bring increases in COVID-19 cases in Washington state

"On behalf of your community hospital, health district, emergency services, and surrounding critical access hospitals, please stay vigilant. Let us all commit to spread out, limit groups, wear a mask, and encourage others to do the same," representatives wrote in the release.

"Each of us plays a role in protecting our friends, family, and co-workers. It takes a collective effort to make a difference. Together we can slow the spread of this disease to help keep it manageable for our health care system and protect those who are most susceptible to complications from COVID-19," the release continues. 

Health leaders ask people to heed guidelines

Health leaders are asking people to follow COVID-19 guidelines, including:

  • Wearing a mask or face covering.
  • Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available
  • Keeping your family home when possible and staying home when sick.
  • Avoiding public areas and doing your best to distance yourself at least 6 feet from others.
  • Avoiding travel.
  • Covering coughs or sneezes with a tissue if you are not masked, then throwing the tissue in the trash.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces often.

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