Valley Medical Center wants to assure the public that its policies regarding the wearing of face masks by its employees and patients are based on science, medicine and the relatively low current COVID-19 infection rate locally.

The Lewiston Tribune contacted the clinic after recent social media posts criticized the facility for not requiring masks. At Tuesday morning’s regular COVID-19 response team meeting of senior staff members, Dr. Geneen Bigsby said the group huddles at least twice a week to weigh the factors regarding personal protective measures like masks so it can make decisions based on the most up-to-date information.

“Masks, unfortunately, have become a political statement,” said Bigsby, the medical director of the Valley Medical Center division of parent company Catalyst Medical Group. “It is our goal to make masks a medical decision.”

The clinic’s administration started meeting multiple times per week at the onset of the pandemic to plan its response and adjust based on the latest information. And while they initially worried COVID-19 would hit the area fast and hard, mass infections didn’t materialize in the Lewiston area, Bigsby said.

The frequent meetings allow the clinic to adapt on the fly, she said. For example, the clinic leadership decided to change its policy Monday to make masks mandatory for its employees and providers who have face-to-face interactions with the public.

“We’ve had more mask discussions that I can count,” said Dr. Cory Gall, one of the COVID-19 response team members. “It isn’t a topic we take lightly.”

The decision to change policy wasn’t based on public pressure, Bigsby added, but the recent and rapid rise of COVID-19 infections in parts of Idaho and several events over last weekend that attracted hundreds of people from outside the area.

The clinic is not yet requiring its patients to wear masks, but will take that step if infections locally continue to rise. Valley Medical has had just two confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including one last week.

Bigsby also said reliable supplies of masks have been hard to come by, so rationing has played a role in the mask policy. The clinic also initially placed masks in dispensers at its reception areas, but patients quickly hoarded them all. She said patients are now encouraged to bring their own masks if they want to wear one. The clinic will also supply a mask upon request.

Staffers in the public areas of the clinic could be seen wearing masks Tuesday, but the members of the COVID-19 response team did not don them for their meeting. They again said that is because of factors like the low local infection rate and the effectiveness of masks in general. They said practices like frequent hand-washing and social distancing are more effective ways of controlling the spread of the virus than masks.

Bigsby also said masks can give people a false sense of security, leading them to lose focus on those other ways of controlling infection. Their efficacy also varies widely based on their construction, with surgical and N95-rated masks doing a better job than simple cloth face coverings. Still, many states like Washington are now requiring people to wear some type of mask in certain situations like where social distancing of 6 feet or more is not possible or feasible.

And even though they initially didn’t recommend masks at the beginning of the pandemic, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are now recommending cloth face coverings in public settings and when people are around others who don’t live in their household, especially when social distancing is difficult.

“Cloth face coverings are recommended as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the cloth face covering coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice,” reads one post about “source control” methods on the CDC COVID-19 website. “This recommendation is based on what we know about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, paired with emerging evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that shows cloth face coverings reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth.”

The disease spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with each other, so such face coverings are particularly important in settings where people are close together, according to the CDC. Public Health – Idaho North Central District Director Carol Moehrle favorably mentioned masks Tuesday in a news release about an employee at Moscow restaurant Tapped who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Interactions with others, especially those that occur in close contact, less than 6 feet and without wearing cloth face coverings, puts individuals at greater risk for being exposed and potentially becoming infected with COVID-19,” Moehrle said.

In other COVID-19 news Tuesday:

The total number of COVID-19 cases in the Public Health – Idaho North Central District jumped by seven, largely because of Latah County, which had two new confirmed cases and four probable cases. Nez Perce County accounted for the other case, according to the district.

Three of the new cases were in children 9 or younger. The others were a person in their 20s, a person in their 30s and two people in their 40s. Four were male, and three were female.

Cases have been on the rise in other jurisdictions, including the Nez Perce Reservation, where a member of the tribe’s executive committee tested positive last week. Tribal medical officials conducted a mass testing event at the Nimiipuu Health in Lapwai on Monday, with nearly 300 people tested. Results are expected in a few days, but a request to the tribe for any new positive results Tuesday went unanswered.

Whitman County reported one new case in a man between the ages of 60 and 79 who is stable and isolating at home. No new cases were reported Tuesday in Asotin County or Garfield County.

The Asotin County Family Aquatic Center announced the cancellation of its outdoor summer season because of COVID-19 mandates and restrictions. Those who have purchased passes may call the center at (509) 758-0110 for a full refund.

The indoor pools and fitness center at the facility will remain open with limited capacity, according to a news release. Information on classes, programs and other events is available at theaquaticcenter.org/covid-19-notice.

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

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