Idaho governor has no immediate plans to issue COVID restrictions despite hospital crisis

Gov. Brad Little is considering legal action against Biden over new COVID-19 plan

By: - September 10, 2021 4:16 pm
Gov. Brad Little holds a press conference at Nampa High School on Thursday, Aug. 12.

Gov. Brad Little holds a press conference at Nampa High School on Aug. 12 to urge Idahoans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Kelcie Moseley-Morris/Idaho Capital Sun)

Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Friday announced that the state is “exploring legal action” against President Joe Biden’s plan to fine large private employers that don’t require the COVID-19 vaccine or routine testing — a move supported by the Idaho Republican Party and its chairman Tom Luna.

“I have been consistent that government should stay out of decisions involving employers and their employees as much as possible,” he said in a news release. “I’ve advocated for and championed fewer government regulations and mandates on business. I am also deeply concerned with the president’s tone in his message to the American people with his new plan. It is wrong for President Biden to dismiss the concerns of millions of Americans and tell governors who represent Americans that he will use his powers as president to get them out of the way.”

I still urge Idahoans to choose to receive the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine and other ways to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 so our kids can stay in school and for the continued health and prosperity of the people of Idaho.

– Idaho Gov. Brad Little in a news release on possible legal action against President Joe Biden's new COVID-19 plan

In a statement released Friday, Luna said Biden’s plan violates the 10th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, which recognizes states’ rights to govern.

“If the constitution does not specifically grant power to the federal government then that power is left to the states and individual citizens,” Luna said. “Nowhere in our U.S. constitution is a power granted to the president to force companies or individuals to receive a medical procedure or vaccination.”

Meanwhile, earlier in the week, Idaho activated “crisis standards of care” for hospitals in North Idaho, allowing them to triage patients to save those most likely to survive. Officials warned that hospitals elsewhere in the state are so close to buckling in the fourth surge of COVID-19 that more “crisis standards” could be imminent.

Little told the Idaho Capital Sun in a brief interview Thursday that, despite the hospital crisis, and with Idaho’s vaccination rates stuck at the lowest in the U.S., he doesn’t plan to place restrictions on travel, large gatherings and how businesses operate.

Little said in an AARP telephone town hall on Tuesday, Aug. 24, that he didn’t plan to move Idaho back in his phased reopening plan.

Idaho has been in Stage 4 since May. That stage removes almost all COVID-19 restrictions and requirements, except for requiring people to wear masks in long-term care facilities. It lists a number of recommendations such as social distancing at events.

“The difference between today and a year ago in April is we have the vaccine now,” he said in a response to a question from Idaho Statesman reporter Hayat Norimine. “Eighty percent of the population over 65 are vaccinated, and granted, there’s people in the hospitals and ICUs, but the at-risk population is much better protected.”

“I would say no, that’s not going to happen, because we want people to choose to do the right thing and get vaccinated, especially the (vulnerable) population,” he said in the town hall.

He then acknowledged that the delta variant appears to make younger people and those with no underlying conditions more vulnerable. He said he didn’t want hospitals to be overwhelmed but was “hopeful that the numbers will go down.”

Idaho hitting record hospitalizations 18 months into pandemic

The numbers did not go down.

Idaho reached about 600 hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the past week.

Idahoans who aren’t vaccinated can still attend large events and patronize businesses without any safeguards required statewide. With the delta variant spreading out of control, that means they can endanger other Idahoans, such as children who cannot yet be vaccinated. And with hospitals now forced to ration and conserve their resources due to the fourth COVID-19 surge, every Idahoan is more at risk of harm due to delayed or withheld medical care.

The Sun asked Little whether the hospital crisis and the increasing number of people seriously ill from COVID-19 have altered his perspective.

“No, because when we were in Stage 2, we didn’t have a vaccine, we didn’t have antibody treatments. At that point in time we were really short in (personal protective equipment for health care workers),” he said.

He reiterated that most people over age 65 are now vaccinated.

He said the criteria for moving forward and backward in Idaho’s reopening plan “is the same, it’s been health care capacity while making sure the economy and the education system move forward.”

The reopening criteria do not take into consideration Idaho’s education and economy. But keeping schools and businesses open have consistently been two of the governor’s top priorities.

How does the state consider reopening criteria now?

Little and his advisers had been reviewing data every two weeks to see if Idaho could fully move out of the revised Stage 4, but Idaho failed to meet any of the criteria for Aug. 12. COVID-19 activity and its impact on health care has only worsened since then.

Idaho has never been farther from meeting the criteria than it is now.

Little has called health care capacity his “North Star” in making decisions about Idaho’s pandemic response.

Never say never, never say always.

– Idaho Gov. Brad Little

So, now that Idaho has been forced to ration health care, will the governor steer the ship in another direction? What would trigger Little taking statewide action to try to slow the spread of coronavirus?

“Hospital capacity is a really important (metric), and we’ve had relief to a certain extent up in North Idaho with the Department of Defense team, and we’ve got a lot of (federal contractors) coming in, which is really going to give me a buffer in our current health care system, but if the trend continues, we’ll continue to look at it,” he said.

He said the delta variant has run through other states and then subsided, so he hopes that will  happen here. He thinks Idaho’s infection rates are under-reported, too, partly due to people testing at home.

Public health experts have warned against any community trying to reach immunity through natural infections. They stress that approach overwhelms hospitals and kills people, whereas vaccines are a path to immunity that prevent both of those.

Little said he’s not advocating for Idaho to reach herd immunity through people getting infected. He said his focus is on getting more people to choose to be vaccinated.

“If there was a variant where the vaccine didn’t work, that would definitely (change the situation), and I think you would see that nationwide,” he said.

Gov. Little continuing to urge people to get vaccinated — without mandates

The Sun asked Little if he believes people would obey new restrictions at this point in the pandemic.

That’s an important question, he said. “Some of our neighboring states, they’re finding that, you know, they’re beating a drum but nobody’s following the band.”

Little said he’s paying attention to “the demeanor of the citizens of Idaho” and thinks it’s better to remind them that “it’s your option to choose” to get vaccinated or follow guidelines on things like mask wearing. “… We’re trying to get people to do the right thing.”

The Sun pointed out that Little issued a statewide ban on vaccine passports for government offices, agencies and employers. The ban also says Idaho government agencies cannot be involved in facilitating vaccine passports.

Did that ban remove a carrot-and-stick tool that might persuade people to get vaccinated?

“We’ve given people the administrative time off, incentives, there’s a lot of other things,” he said, referring to a four-hour paid time off benefit Little offered state employees to get vaccinated.

Little said he thinks more people will choose to be vaccinated as people grow more aware of the threat. But Idaho’s vaccination uptake remains stagnant. In fact, the number of Idahoans getting their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine is on a slight decline, even in the days after North Idaho hit the point of rationing medical care.

For now, Little is also betting on the influx of federal crisis workers to help add more hospital capacity, so that Idaho can avoid a worse situation.

“… The good news we got today was we initially thought 200 (federal contractors would be sent in to help), and looks like we’re getting 400 workers,” he said. “That should be a big help.”

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.