Terrel Tovey

Terrel “Ned” Tovey

Bannock County Commissioner Terrel “Ned” Tovey blasted Southeastern Idaho Public Health officials Thursday afternoon for elevating the county’s COVID-19 risk level and pledged to vote to withhold funding from the agency in the future.

Tovey said he believes the Southeastern Idaho Public Health (SIPH) board is no longer operating within its purview and authority and he is frustrated that all eight members of the board can vote on decisions impacting Bannock County.

“We should not have smaller counties that are not elected by our people making decisions for our county,” Tovey said. “You have counties that are less than 3,000 people that are voting to lock us down when we’ve talked to CEOs of companies that have told us we do not have a capacity issue for intensive care unit beds.”

Tovey continued, “The (SIPH) board is making decisions that I feel they shouldn’t be and exercising authorities that they do not have. The big problem that I have is why are we still reporting testing numbers. What we are doing now is reporting fear tactics. We went from a crush the curve mentality to we’re going to eradicate a virus and shut everything down. To me, this is no longer within (SIPH’s) purview and authority. Even though state law requires us to fund the public health district, I am not going to vote in favor of releasing funds to them for this next fiscal year.”

SIPH Director Maggie Mann, in response to Tovey’s comments, said, “I believe the board is operating within it’s scope as defined by statute. Those board members are committed public servants as is all of SIPH’s staff. We work with community partners to do what we can within our scope to support our communities.”

Mann declined to respond to Tovey’s pledge to withhold funding from her agency in the future. Tovey said Bannock County provides SIPH with over $500,000 of annual funding.

Tovey also questioned the accuracy of SIPH’s current COVID-19 active case numbers for Southeast Idaho, saying many of the recently reported cases included false positives that should have been retracted. SIPH Community Health Director Tracy McCulloch said the agency’s COVID-19 numbers are up to date and accurate.

Tovey’s comments came after the SIPH board, which includes one representative from each of the eight counties within the region, unanimously voted during its Thursday morning meeting to approve a motion from Bannock County Commissioner Ernie Moser to elevate the county’s COVID-19 risk level from minimal (green) to moderate (yellow).

The eight counties in SIPH’s region include Bannock, Bear Lake, Bingham, Butte, Caribou, Franklin, Oneida and Power.

Representatives from Oneida and Caribou counties were not present during the meeting, which was held via a telephone conference call. The meeting was also livestreamed on SIPH’s Facebook page.

The unanimous vote to move Bannock County into the moderate risk level came only after an earlier motion from Moser to keep the county at the minimal level failed. SIPH board members from Power, Butte and Bear Lake counties voted against Moser’s earlier motion, while Moser and Bingham County’s representative voted in favor of it. Franklin County’s representative was not present for the vote on Moser’s first motion but was present and did vote in favor of the second motion to elevate Bannock County into the moderate category.

When justifying why he initially believed Bannock County should remain in the minimal risk category, Moser, a Republican, said he was “convinced the county is OK where it is” after having conversations with local hospitals who said they have not exceeded their capacity for ICU beds.

Though Bannock County’s active COVID-19 cases have been above the threshold to warrant being moved to the moderate category since Sept. 1, SIPH’s regional response plan includes an “and/or” trigger mechanism to account for how COVID-19 is impacting local hospitals. For instance, a county could be elevated from the minimal to the moderate risk category if its active cases reach a particular threshold based on population and/or if the intensive care bed capacity of the hospitals in that county reaches 90 percent two or three times in one week.

Moser told the Journal on Tuesday afternoon that he is focusing more on the “or” of the regional response plan’s “and/or” trigger mechanism. He reiterated that point during the SIPH board meeting on Thursday morning.

After Moser’s motion to remain in the minimal level failed, Mann explained that the chief medical officers of both Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot, Ken Newhouse, and Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, Daniel Snell, have said their respective hospitals are very close to exceeding their ICU bed capacity.

If that happens, and the situation worsens at all, hospitals could then be forced to look at implementing crisis standards of care, which is when health care systems are so overwhelmed that it is impossible for them to provide the normal, or standard, level of care to patients. In other words, hospitals would be forced to decide which patients to treat and which ones to leave untreated.

“You are going to make the decision that you are going to make, but our intent is to prevent the hospitals from becoming overwhelmed,” Mann said to Moser during the SIPH board meeting. “Both Dr. Snell and Dr. Newhouse have addressed the fact that they are on the edge of that cliff and about to go over.”

Additionally, Mann pointed out that no matter what risk category a particular county is moved to, aside from the critical category, the SIPH board had previously decided to change the language of the regional response plan from mandating mitigation strategies to simply recommending them. In other words, there is no enforcement factor or required action associated with any of the risk categories for Southeast Idaho counties except for critical.

SIPH board Vice Chair Vaughn Rassmussen, the representative for Bear Lake County, addressed Moser during the conference call, explaining that to the general public the current active case numbers are not nearly as large of a focus as the color of the associated risk category, and that Bannock County’s COVID-19 numbers have warranted being moved to moderate since Sept. 1.

“People aren’t looking at the cases. They are looking at the color,” Vaughn said to Moser during the SIPH board meeting. “We can go anyway we want, but what message are we sending? If we go into yellow (moderate) this sends the message that we have to be careful, but really it doesn’t change a whole lot.”

Moser then made the motion to elevate Bannock County to the moderate COVID-19 risk category.

Tovey says he is worried that because the moderate risk category has the recommendation of limiting events and social gatherings to no more than 150 people that upcoming events like the Black and Blue Bowl football game between Highland and Pocatello high schools will have a significantly limited in-person attendance.

“So are we only going to allow 150 people at the Black and Blue Bowl?” Tovey said. “Are the city police going to enforce that? If that’s the case then the governor’s (speech at the Portneuf Wellness Complex on Wednesday) would not have been allowed.”

Tovey, a Republican, continued, “The problem is we now have bureaucrats that are making decisions. I can see what political parties they are affiliated with and the decisions they are making and it appears as if this is completely politically driven and I am not OK with that. At this point, I have no further use for the (SIPH) board.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the SIPH board elevated Bingham and Franklin counties into the moderate risk level for COVID-19 while Butte County was lowered from high risk to moderate. Oneida County is currently at the minimal COVID-19 risk level, Bear Lake and Caribou counties are at the moderate level, and Power County is at high risk.