The Region 2 public health district reported 131 new COVID-19 cases in north central Idaho on Thursday, with nearly 40 percent of them occurring at one facility.
Following a mass testing event Wednesday, North Idaho Correctional Institution reported 49 new cases of the virus, bringing the total there to 164.
Outbreaks among inmates at the Cottonwood facility account for more than a quarter of the 634 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 reported in Idaho County since the pandemic began.
As of Wednesday evening, the Idaho Department of Correction was reporting a total of 2,222 cases among inmates statewide. That includes 1,804 cases that are no longer active, 370 inmates who were positive but asymptomatic, 44 active cases and four deaths.
Also, 254 Department of Correction staff members have tested positive for the virus, with 52 of those cases remaining active.
Idaho County reported 50 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, including the 49 prison cases. Latah County added 43 cases, followed by 22, nine and seven in Nez Perce, Clearwater and Lewis counties, respectively.
Idaho as a whole reported 1,543 new confirmed and probable cases of the virus Thursday, along with 23 additional fatalities linked to COVID-19. That marks the fifth time in the past nine days that the new case total has exceeded 1,500.
The state has now reported 87,978 cases since the pandemic began.
More than 22,000 of those — about 25 percent of the total — are in Ada County, which at least raises a question whether the coming 2021 legislative session should proceed as normal.
A substantial portion of the 105 state lawmakers fall into the older demographic category that’s more susceptible to the disease. It’s also not unusual for cold or flu bugs to be passed between lawmakers, lobbyists and staff during a session.
Gov. Brad Little declined to weigh in on the topic during a recent news conference, saying it’s up to the Legislature to decide whether and how the session should proceed. And so far, all signs point to an in-person session, beginning as scheduled Jan. 11.
That isn’t to say lawmakers are oblivious to the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Statehouse. They’ve taken steps to limit seating capacity in committee rooms and to promote social distancing on the House and Senate floors.
“I can almost guarantee you it will be something other than a ‘status quo’ session,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville.
The Legislative Services Office has been working on contingency plans for months, he said, should the pandemic force a shift in operations. For example, closed-captioning is being added to the audio or visual stream from all committee rooms and floor sessions, to facilitate public viewing. The Statehouse’s telecommunications infrastructure has also been beefed up, to allow public testimony either online or over the phone.
Steps have also been taken to accommodate a fully remote session, in the event things become completely untenable.
“I’ve had emails from our IT staff, asking to check our connection at home,” said Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston. “There’s a lot of prep work that will be needed if we’re going to (conduct business) remotely.”
Johnson noted that the Idaho Constitution, together with state statutes, require the Legislature to meet in person on the Monday closest to the ninth day of January.
“We know we’ll do that,” he said. “But what happens after that will be subject to the pandemic.”
Crabtree agreed, saying he expect lawmakers to meet in person at the Statehouse until forced to do otherwise. Some potential changes, though, will likely require statutory changes, such as allowing online voting. He expects those items to be the Legislature’s first order of business.
“We don’t know how to do pandemics,” he said. “Our laws aren’t set up for it, so we’re going to have to adapt. We will, and we’ll do it in a pragmatic way, not a ‘hair-on-fire’ way.”
The Washington Legislature has indicated its Statehouse will be closed to the public and to lobbyists once its 2021 session begins Jan. 11. Lawmakers themselves will likely engage through a combination of in-person or remote participation.
Washington reported 1,987 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, along with 11 additional fatalities.
Locally, Whitman County reported 26 new cases, for a total of 2,121. Asotin County had 10 new cases, while Garfield County reported one additional case.
Globally, more than 623,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported Thursday. The worldwide total has increased by more than 500,000 cases per day in all but two days so far in November.
In other virus-related news:
The Washington Idaho Symphony is canceling the remainder of its 2020-21 season because of the pandemic. That includes performances of “Transcendent Talent” in February, “Dvorak!” in March and “A Pioneer at the Podium” in April, as well as the annual Young Artist Competition.
Season ticket holders can request a refund at the symphony’s website, wa-idsymphony.org/cancellation-refund-policy.
The first three concerts of the season were canceled earlier this year. To make up for lost revenue, the organization is encouraging patrons to donate to the symphony at www.wa-idsymphony.org.
The Lewis and Clark Discovery Center at Hells Gate State Park will be closed today because of possible coronavirus exposure. It will reopen after sanitization protocols are completed. Outdoor areas are not affected.
The Wreaths Across America program at Vineland Cemetery in Clarkston has been postponed until next year.
The national program places wreaths at grave sites for veterans and first responders.
Spence may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.