Gov. Little COVID presser

Gov. Brad Little answers questions from the media during a press conference at Nampa High School to discuss Idaho-specific COVID-19 activity, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Little encouraged Idahoans to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as students head back to school.

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BOISE — Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Friday announced that he's working with his legal counsel and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden on a possible legal challenge to President Joe Biden's newly announced nationwide vaccine requirements for employers and others amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic.

GOP governors in Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Tennessee, Texas and South Dakota made similar announcements, and the Republican National Committee said it would file a lawsuit against the Biden Administration when the requirement goes into effect. However, legal experts said lawsuits would be unlikely to prevail, and Biden, when asked by reporters on Friday about the threatened challenges, said, "Have at it."

Little, who had never issued any vaccine mandates and earlier signed an executive order prohibiting the use of "vaccine passport" requirements by state agencies, called the Biden Administration's sweeping new plan "unprecedented government overreach into the private sector."

The Republican governor said he'd examine legal options "to protect the rights of business owners and their employees."

On Thursday afternoon, the president announced sweeping new federal vaccine requirements affecting as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant.

Though details still are being finalized, the expansive new rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans, the AP reports. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.

Biden also signed an executive order to require vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.

Little, in a statement Friday, said, "I have been consistent that government should stay out of decisions involving employers and their employees as much as possible. I’ve advocated for and championed fewer government regulations and mandates on business."

"I am also deeply concerned with the president’s tone in his message to the American people with his new plan. It is wrong for President Biden to dismiss the concerns of millions of Americans and tell governors who represent Americans that he will use his powers as president to get them out of the way. This is not leadership."

Idaho has seen widespread resistance to getting the now fully-FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, and has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. It's also experiencing one of the worst surges in the nation, with two of its seven health districts now under unprecedented Crisis Standards of Care in hospitals that permit rationing of care amid scarce resources and staffing.

Little has mobilized the National Guard to help hard-hit hospitals and health care facilities, and the Pentagon sent a 20-person Army team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists to Kootenai Health in Coeur d'Alene amid the COVID-driven health care crisis, which is seeing the state's hospitals and intensive care units overwhelmed with unvaccinated, severely ill COVID-19 patients. Idaho was one of just three states, along with Arkansas and Alabama, to get an Army medical team sent.

As of Thursday, Idaho had just 11 staffed adult ICU beds available statewide. 

"I still urge Idahoans to choose to receive the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine," Little said Friday, "and other ways to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 so our kids can stay in school and for the continued health and prosperity of the people of Idaho.”

Idaho is experiencing its highest levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations, ICU usage and emergency room visits to date, far exceeding the previous December peak of the coronavirus pandemic. 

For the week, Canyon County led the state with the most new infections, at more than 700, followed by Kootenai County at more than 600. Both had twice as many new COVID-19 infections as Ada County, which has a population more than twice as high as Canyon or Kootenai.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.