Five months into Idaho’s coronavirus crisis, confusion reigns. And not just among other people. It’s OK to admit: You’re confused too.
Do you know how many people you’re supposed to limit your backyard gatherings to? Do you know where face coverings are required outdoors and where they’re not?
You know you’re supposed to don a mask in the grocery store if you’re physically able, but that’s about it. It’s hard to keep up with ever-changing medical advice about COVID-19, and ever-changing local rules and recommendations.
Fatigued and daunted, you may have become complacent. Maybe you don’t bother to mask up anymore as you walk Fifi down the street or Fido in the Foothills. Maybe you mask up but cover just your mouth, because covering the nose is so uncomfortable.
But the battle is not yet won. Information is part of the path to victory over the virus. So we’ve prepared this Q&A to arm you with the latest facts in the fight.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: 9 QUESTIONS, ANSWERS
1. Where am I supposed to be wearing masks?
There is one answer for most of Idaho and another for Ada County.
Gov. Brad Little’s Stage 4, which began June 13, remains in effect. In Canyon County and most Idaho cities and counties, you’re asked, but not ordered, to wear face coverings in public. Little’s Stage 4 “Stay Healthy Guidelines” did away with prior orders. The guidelines mandate nothing. Little is relying on your good will.
But Stage 4 quickly went sour in highly populated Ada and Canyon counties. It failed to stop the surge of the coronavirus, so the Central District Health Department stepped in later in June to return Ada County to a modified Stage 3.
Canyon County is under the separate Southwest District Health Department, which decided not to issue mandates, only recommendations, to wear masks, maintain social distancing and avoid visits to jails and senior-living centers.
Some Idaho cities have issued their own mask mandates, and some counties, including Valley County and several in Eastern Idaho, have mask mandates from their health departments. In Boise, Mayor Lauren McLean ordered face coverings starting July 4 in all public places, including the Greenbelt, Foothills trails, city parks and other places, where you are likely to encounter people from outside your immediate household.
Those prohibitions remain in effect in Boise, but not because of McLean’s order. She canceled the order to avoid duplication after Central District Health issued its own mask order for all of Ada County, including Boise. The health department’s order specifically includes face coverings in schools.
This is what the Central District Health says: “Every person is required to wear a face covering that completely covers the person’s nose and mouth when the person is in a public place and others are present and physical distancing of 6 feet cannot be maintained. A public place is defined as any place open to all members of the public without specific invitation, including but not necessarily limited to, retail, business establishments, government offices, medical, educational, arts and recreational institutions, public transportation, including taxi cabs and ride-sharing vehicles, outdoor public areas, including, but not limited to public parks, trails, streets, sidewalks, lines for entry, exit, or service, when a distance of at least 6 feet cannot be maintained from any non-household member.”
2. What kind of mask should I wear?
The best masks are the ones that cover your mouth AND your nose, and that fit snugly against your face. When looking for a mask, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends ones with at least two layers of a breathable fabric. Bonus points if it is also washable.
If you wear glasses, look for one that has a nose wire to hold the mask close to your nose — this can help you avoid fogging up your glasses.
If you are looking for a mask for a child, try to find one made for children. If that’s not possible, make sure the mask is at least snug against your child’s face.
Avoid masks made of fabric that makes it hard to breathe. The CDC also recommends avoiding masks with “exhalation valves,” which allow particles to escape.
Bandannas are allowed. It is not actually clear if neck gaiters, which are sleeve-like and typically cover the neck as well as the fact, are effective, so it’s best to avoid those. Plastic face shields should also be avoided, as it is not clear how effective they are, either.
Don’t touch your mask when wearing it. The CDC recommends handling a mask only by the ear loops. Wash your mask with your regular laundry, drying on the highest heat setting.
3. Are social gatherings restricted? What about nonsocial gatherings? What about churches, stores, restaurants and theaters?
In Ada County, the health department on Aug. 11 restricted backyard and other social gatherings involving nonhousehold members to 10 people, down from 50 previously. The 50-person limit still applies to nonsocial gatherings, such as public meetings.
Neither limit applies to people patronizing churches, stores, restaurants and theaters. But 6-foot social distancing is required in all those places.
The same order prohibits all gatherings at concert and sporting venues, parades and festivals.
4. When do the health orders expire?
Gov. Brad Little’s may lift his Stage 4 guidelines when certain measurements for new cases, hospitalizations and other criteria are met. There’s no telling when that will be. He has extended the original two-week Stage 4 six times so far, each for two weeks.
The Ada County order has no expiration date. It will last until Central District Health rescinds it.
5. How can I vote safely in ID?
Idaho elections officials say the safest way to vote in November’s general election is to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail.
To request your absentee ballot or to check the status of the ballot you’ve already requested, visit idahovotes.gov. There, you can also register to vote and look up your polling place.
To check your ballot status, type your name and birthday into the blue box labeled “Check your voter record.” If you’ve requested an absentee ballot, you’ll see a box under your precinct information and legislative districts that says which absentee ballots you’ve requested and the date you submitted the request.
To be sure your ballot arrives on time, request it as soon as possible and mail it by Tuesday, Oct. 27, a week before the election. Absentee ballots will be mailed out to voters 30 days before the election, so don’t worry if you haven’t seen it yet.
To vote in person safely, wear a mask and try to remain as socially distant from others as possible. To minimize exposure to other people, try voting first thing in the morning or early in the afternoon, when lines are usually shortest.
6. When should I get my flu shot?
The CDC is not recommending early vaccinations this year. The best times to get vaccinated are late September and October, so the vaccine lasts through the winter.
If you are high risk, the CDC says it is “especially important” for you to get a flu shot this year. Flu shots are recommended for everyone 6 months and older.
Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, told the editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association that it was important for people to get the flu vaccine to help reduce the strain on hospital capacity.
“I think this is a critical year for us to try to take flu as much off the table as we can, as a respiratory pathogen that’s going to cause people to be sick enough to have to go into the hospital,” he said.
Vaccine manufacturers are expecting to produce more flu shots in the 2020-21 flu season than ever, but it’s possible the places you normally go may be closed or may have changed procedures because of COVID-19. If you’re looking for a place to get your flu shot, visit vaccinefinder.org.
A flu vaccine won’t protect against COVID-19.
7. When will a novel coronavirus vaccine be available?
That’s still not clear.
Redfield asked governors in a letter in late August to fast-track permits for distribution sites by Nov. 1, but it doesn’t appear that a coronavirus vaccine has actually proven effective yet. Trials are ongoing around the world.
Dr. Larry Corey, who is co-leading the coronavirus vaccine clinical trials for the COVID-19 Prevention Network under the National Institutes of Health a virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told McClatchy that he does not expect trial results to be ready for delivery or even approval by Nov. 1.
8. My child is tired of COVID-19 precautions, and I’m worried that puts my family at risk.
Johns Hopkins psychologist Carisa Parrish recommends giving kids options. You might let them pick their mask color or their hand sanitizer scent.
She recommends giving kids permission to remind other family members to follow safety procedures. “Giving them that level of involvement helps keep them engaged in safer practices,” she wrote in a post for Johns Hopkins.
The CDC recommends masks for anyone over age 2.
Keeping supplies such as hand sanitizer and masks handy can be a helpful way to make sure people actually use them, Parrish wrote.
9. What is the biggest cause for concern right now in our community?
First, here’s what it is not: The rate of positive results in virus tests. The number of COVID-related hospitalizations.
Here’s what Brandon Atkins, public information specialist for Central District Health, says it is:
“The biggest cause for concern is individuals in our communities who fail to follow public health guidance and increase risk of transmission due to negligence and ignorance. We are a community and we have to work together to reduce transmission of this virus.”
The most important thing, he said, is to make sure that everyone follows public-health protocols.
“Actively pushing against public-health practices is the No. 1 way we can guarantee a prolonged, less effective means of reducing the prevalence of this illness in our community,” Atkins wrote in an email.
HEALTH LEADERS: STAY DILIGENT
So there you have it. As fatigued as you may feel about the virus, medical leaders such as Dr. Christine Hahn, Idaho’s state epidemiologist, say it’s still vital to wear masks, wash hands, disinfect surfaces and stay at least 6 feet from people not in your household.
New cases, hospitalizations and death rates may be receding, but they’re still high — and with autumn weather closing in, the rate of community spread could rise again. Metrics right now “are looking pretty good,” Little said at a news conference Thursday, “but that is not a reason to let our guard down.”
Atkins puts it this way:
“Many people see decreases in case counts as the time to relax and let go of some of the measures taken to reduce those numbers. This is absolutely the last thing that should be done.
“All members of our communities must continue to be diligent in practicing appropriate social distancing and wearing masks when out in public spaces. Appropriately wearing a mask that covers the nose and mouth will continue to be one of our greatest tools to reduce the risk of transmission in conjunction with good hygiene practices and social distancing.”