John Fleming, White House

White House Deputy Chief of Staff John Fleming spoke with Post Register reporters on Thursday about COVID-19 in Idaho.

In an interview with the Post Register on Thursday, White House staffer John Fleming endorsed a COVID-19 control strategy of issuing few state restrictions, having local governments handle the bulk of mandates and using a light touch on enforcement — all similar to the approach Idaho Gov. Brad Little has embraced.

“We’re just not seeing mandates really change the outcome,” Fleming said. “It’s more about personal responsibility and just making sure the community knows what they should be doing to limit the spread.”

Fleming, a physician and a former Republican U.S. House member from Louisiana who serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, touched on the severity of COVID-19’s spread in Idaho, school re-opening and how officials should control the virus. Fleming has talked about the pandemic to several local news outlets across the country.

Though overwhelmed hospital personnel in Idaho say they are nearing a crisis scenario, Fleming was optimistic about the state of the virus. Treatment methods have been vastly expanded since the early days, he said, pointing to the antiviral remdesivir, the steroid dextamethasone and monoclonal antibodies, a treatment that recently received FDA emergency use authorization.

“Lengths of stay have dropped tremendously” in hospitals, Fleming said. The virus is still far deadlier than the flu, but death rates haven’t risen dramatically during the most recent wave, which Fleming said indicates “doctors are doing a much better job.”

Many new infections are among young people who are less likely to require hospitalizations, he said, which is “some good news.” But hospitals are still filling up.

“There is no question the governor has to take steps,” Fleming said. “And certainly by encouraging personal behavior with hygiene, which is to observe the three Ws: washing your hands, wearing a mask and watching your distance. And in some cases he may have to limit the number of people who gather in certain types of gatherings, such as reducing access to bars, limiting the capacity in restaurants. These are all mitigating steps that have to be taken whenever there is a surge in infection rates.

Those steps, Fleming said, should be to encourage people voluntarily abide by public health guidelines. Little has doubled down on that strategy while the virus surges more rapidly than ever, saying last Friday that: “Law enforcement cannot be everywhere all the time. That is why I maintain this comes down to personal responsibility.”

Last Friday, Little banned gatherings of more than 10 people, with wide exceptions, and he deployed the National Guard to deal with health care staff shortages. Should the few public health mandates, including mask requirements that apply to half the state’s population, be enforced in Idaho? Fleming said no.

“I don’t think that’s effective, and I don’t think that’s necessary. What I find — for instance, when I’m walking down the street here in Washington, D.C., because we do have a requirement to wear masks and when I go into restaurants, it’s part of acceptable behavior. It’s part of a cultural norm right now,” Fleming said. “You may have an exception here and there, but generally people are willing to work with you.”

Fleming spoke against “extreme measures” such as new lockdowns or business closures.

“Closing down restaurants altogether, closing down the economy, closing down schools is really unnecessary and actually quite damaging,” he said.

He also said schools should be kept open, saying not having children in school is damaging both to their education and due to isolating them from their peers. Younger children, he said, have a low fatality rate. And he said the “rate of infections in K-12” schools is “quite low.”

“By far, it’s much better to get kids back into school whenever possible, unless they’re particularly vulnerably,” Fleming said.

Fleming also stressed that vaccines are inching toward approval rapidly. In the past two weeks, Pfizer and Moderna each announced that their vaccines were more than 90 percent effective, based on limited initial studies.

“For now, we just need to be very careful to protect ourselves and protect the vulnerable,” he said. “… Soon, we will have extremely effective vaccines ready to go and this will put this pandemic in the history books.”

In a Thursday meeting of Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board, clinic administrator Amy Gammet, who serves on the state vaccine advisory committee, said Idaho is preparing to get approximately 60,000 vaccine doses. Distribution could begin in December.

The first round will likely be reserved for a priority group, such as health care workers. Gammet said the vaccine will likely become more widely available next year.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.