Even though COVID-19 cases are down from their peak levels from a few months ago and vaccinations are becoming widespread, the top infectious disease doctor at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center said Friday that people should continue measures like social distancing, frequent hand-washing and mask-wearing to prevent another wave of the deadly disease.

“We can’t let our guard down and think COVID is gone and we don’t have to worry about it any more,” said Dr. David Souvenir, the Lewiston hospital’s adult infectious disease expert. “Vaccinations are safe, they’re effective. But even if you get vaccinated, this is not 100 percent protection.”

The best-performing vaccines offer protection to more than 90 percent of recipients, according to manufacturer and government studies. But Souvenir said that still leaves a small yet significant portion of recipients who will get infected if they are exposed to the coronavirus. Many people are also choosing to not get the vaccine.

With that in mind, the hospital will continue with the preventative measures he helped institute more than a year ago at the onset of the pandemic. Those include requiring all those inside the hospital to wear masks, limiting access points into the buildings, asking screening questions of people as they enter, enhanced cleaning protocols, limiting the number of patient visitors, testing all patients admitted to the hospital and testing patients before they undergo procedures, he said.

“So we still want to remain very diligent protecting and preventing COVID infection,” he said, noting that none of St. Joe’s employees have contracted the disease from a patient. “There were so many challenges that were presented to us that everybody stepped up. I’m really proud of our staff.”

Souvenir came to Lewiston about two and a half years ago from Coeur d’Alene in response to the hospital’s recruitment effort for an infectious disease physician. Since then, he’s been at the forefront of the overall effort to reduce all types of infections at the facility. His preparations and guidance were therefore instrumental when the pandemic hit, and his stock — both locally and at other area hospitals — went through the roof.

“If you look at what has transpired, certainly, if there’s an infectious disease provider in your community, you’re now very valued,” he said.

St. Joe’s administrators gave him free rein to consult with Tri-State Memorial Hospital in Clarkston, Gritman Medical Center in Moscow and Pullman Regional Hospital in Pullman on their COVID-19 responses. He now has privileges at all three facilities. Souvenir said the teamwork fostered by those relationships has brought a newfound sense of community and collaboration to the region’s medical community.

Unpredictability remains one of the main reasons Souvenir cited for remaining vigilant in the face of the ongoing threat posed by the coronavirus. For instance, the pandemic isn’t following the behavior patterns of seasonal influenza. So with the future uncertain, he is going to play it safe and still recommend cautious behavior.

That uncertainty was at its greatest in March 2020, when the hospital first established its daily incident command center to coordinate care and prevention. And while so much more has been learned about the virus since then, Souvenir said he and other health care officials remain acutely tuned in to all the latest developments.

“This is really a moving target in terms of preparation,” he said. “We’ve always had a robust emergency preparedness plan in place. This is something I did daily, weekly and monthly before COVID. Granted, this is new and different and novel, but in a way still similar to what infectious disease providers and infection prevention nurses have dealt with far before COVID.”

And people who are critical of evolving recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors and public health officials should realize that as a science-based profession, medicine relies on science that is gathered and interpreted over time.

“We’re still learning,” he said. “We’re still gathering data with regard to COVID infections and COVID illness and COVID vaccinations.”

Souvenir also hailed the work put in by the Public Health – Idaho North Central District, and St. Joe’s parent company, LifePoint Health. He said local public health officials have been instrumental in keeping the hospital updated with epidemiologic data, and LifePoint has shared helpful experience and resources from its other hospitals to help inform St. Joe’s response.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.