Drive-up COVID-19 screening at St. Luke's

Ashley Layton, a nurse at St. Luke’s hospital in Meridian, places a test swab into a container after administering a test for COVID-19 at a drive-up screening set up in the hospital’s parking lot on March 17.

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A plan to reopen Idaho during the coronavirus pandemic hinges on understanding what the state and individuals have to do to defeat the illness, the co-chair of Gov. Brad Little’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force said.

“The long-term success for all of us in this pandemic, which is going to be a long game here, absolutely hinges on our people understanding the enemy better,” said Jim Souza, chief medical officer for St. Luke’s Health System.

The Republican governor’s four-stage plan to reopen the state by incrementally lifting restrictions spaced by roughly two-week intervals started Friday. It will conclude in June if there isn’t a second wave of infections that forces a reversal.

Souza and the 16-member task force Little formed in late April must come up with a testing strategy aimed at avoiding that second wave. Souza said the task force will likely submit a strategy this week to Little.

The virus “is not that tough: it’s actually kind of wimpy,” Souza said. “Simple soap and water will dissolve it. Alcohol wipes will dissolve it. It doesn’t have a brain. We can totally outsmart it.”

However, he said, the virus does a good job of hiding in the population because there’s a large group of people who have minimal or no symptoms who are shedding the virus, which can be lethal to others.

At least 64 people have died due to the virus in Idaho, and more than 2,000 have been infected, according to a tally Monday by Johns Hopkins University.

“You can’t fight an enemy you can’t see, so testing is our way to see it,” Souza said,

Primarily, he said, the best strategy for individuals is simply taking precautions to avoid getting the virus such as limiting social interactions and practicing good hygiene such as hand washing. He also said face coverings can prevent someone from spreading the virus.

He said the state will have to ramp up testing, which must be followed with contact tracing for positive results to determine who an infected person had contact with.

“If we do a whole bunch of tests and we don’t have that contact tracing ability, we really haven’t advanced our cause,” he said.

Other necessities, he said, include developing rapid response teams for flare-ups and predictive capabilities to anticipate flare-ups. He said St. Luke’s has developed both short-term and long-term forecasting that could be used.

“There’s going to be ongoing disease activity,” Souza said. “It will probably look more like a series of small waves.”

Little’s plan is essentially a strategy for gradually reopening the state without having a surge in new infections that could require reinstating restrictions because of the potential for the healthcare system to be overwhelmed.

Souza said medical professionals want to avoid that as well. In Idaho, the virus was first detected in mid-March in Blaine County, and then quickly spiraled out of control before Little issued a stay-at-home order in late March. Souza said that first wave of infections caused the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls to fill up with coronavirus patients needing help breathing.

“That was very frighting to watch, how quickly that happened,” Souza said. “I have not seen anything like that in my professional career.”