Idaho bill axing COVID-19 from emergency list passes House

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho House has passed legislation to define how severe an epidemic must be before it can qualify as a disaster. Under the measure, the coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t meet the criteria.

The bill, which passed 58-12 on a party-line vote Wednesday, would effectively exclude the ongoing pandemic because not enough Idaho residents have died from the coronavirus yet. It’s part of a package of bills designed to shift power from the governor’s office to the state Legislature, all pushed by lawmakers angry over the actions Gov. Brad Little has taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Rep. Julianne Young, a Republican from Blackfoot, sponsored the legislation. It adds “epidemic” and “pandemic” to the state’s list of disasters that can trigger an emergency declaration. The bill defines an epidemic as a widespread outbreak of disease that causes a significant increase of mortality rates from the illness. To qualify as an epidemic, an outbreak would have to be “moderate” or “severe,” attacking at least one-quarter of the population and resulting in a fatality rate of at least 1.5%.

Based on Idaho’s current population of about 1.78 million people, the bill would require at least 446,750 residents to become sickened and at least 6,701 of them to die before an outbreak would be considered a statewide epidemic. In comparison, Idaho public health officials have reported more than 171,800 cases of COVID-19, and at least 1,871 deaths since the pandemic began in 2020.

The bill also removes violent acts like terrorist attacks from the current definition, pushing those kinds of emergencies into a separate piece of legislation.

Rep. Steve Berch, a Democrat from Boise, said the bill neglected to address epidemics like polio, which during the 1940s disabled more than 35,000 people each year in the U.S., though many of the stricken survived.

“I think this bill is picking arbitrary numbers and really is not good legislation,” Berch said.

But Young said the bill relied on the state Office of Emergency Management’s definition of an epidemic.

“We have not varied from that,” Young said. “There is no political spin here, this is a fact.”

The definitions used in the bill appear to come from an Office of Emergency Management document that details the state’s potential response to pandemic influenza, based on numbers from 2018.

The bill now heads to the Senate.