NAMPA — Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Thursday said he is directing $30 million to expand COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools.
The Republican governor made the announcement at Nampa High School in southwestern Idaho as coronavirus cases spike because of the delta variant just as students prepare to return to class next week.
The $30 million is coming from emergency funds set aside by the Legislature to deal with unforeseen events, Little said.
“It’s critical now,” he said. “These school districts have got to have some resources.”
House Republicans earlier this year killed a bill to use $40 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for voluntary testing in public and private schools.
Little urged residents who haven’t been vaccinated to get the shot to help avoid COVID-19 disruptions at schools and the potential to overrun hospitals with coronavirus patients if the current trend continues.
“As I’ve stated from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our students need to be able to learn in their classrooms with their teachers and peers,” Little said. “Our main defense in ensuring the new school year is entirely in-person — free from outbreaks and quarantines — is the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Little also said workers getting sick and schools shutting down because of coronavirus outbreaks and parents forced to stay home to care for kids and miss work could slow Idaho’s economic rebound.
“Our workforce cannot afford to stay home because schools and day cares shut down due to outbreaks,” he said. “This threatens Idaho’s phenomenal economic success.”
Idaho has about a $1 billion budget surplus, and unemployment has dropped to nearly pre-pandemic levels.
But Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation with about half of people ages 12 and up fully vaccinated, compared with 58% nationally.
Of Idaho’s 206,000 coronavirus cases, about 10%, or just over 20,000, have been school-age children from 5 to 17. There is currently no vaccine for children under age 12.
Nearly 99% of Idaho residents getting COVID-19 since Jan. 1 were not vaccinated. Nearly 99% of hospitalizations because of COVID-19 since Jan. 1 have been people who weren’t vaccinated. State officials also say nearly all deaths because of COVID-19 in Idaho since January are among people not vaccinated.
But vaccinations in Idaho have climbed steadily in the last month, going from 11,000 doses in the week ending July 11 to 18,000 in the week ending Aug. 1.
Little said that was a good sign and hoped the number increased. If it didn’t, the trend in COVID-19 infections could overwhelm hospitals, he said.
Little said he’s been in contact with the Idaho National Guard about possibly calling them in to help.
Several protesters showed up at the school but weren’t allowed into the news conference held in the gym. One came armed with a handgun on his hip. He left after the news conference ended and police arrived and told him guns weren’t allowed in the school.
Ben Adams, a Republican representative from Nampa, also arrived and wasn’t allowed into the news conference. He was among the majority of House members who earlier this year voted against the $40 million for COVID-19 testing in schools, killing the bill.
“Call me a Debbie Downer, but I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon that COVID is the most dangerous threat to the people of Idaho right now,” he said following Little’s news conference. “I think it’s heavy-handed government that is the biggest threat.”
More than 206,000 Idaho residents have contracted COVID-19, and more than 2,200 have died.
Two of the state’s largest hospitals, St. Luke’s Health System and Kootenai Health in northern Idaho, have halted some non-emergency procedures due to an increase in COVID-19 patients, nearly all of them unvaccinated.
“The overall trend is bad,” said Jim Souza, chief medical officer for St. Luke’s Health System. “It’s looking worse than the December, January surge.”
The state’s public four-year universities recently reinstated mask mandates ahead of fall classes, as has the Boise School District.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Boone contributed to this report.