Idaho broke its daily record of new COVID-19 cases this week, its moving average of new cases is at an all-time high, and its healthcare system is edging up to a crisis as hospitals reach their limits and doctors contemplate rationing out care on the basis of who’s most likely to survive.
Which means, of course, that the hyper-patriotic followers of “Ammon’s Army”—the “resistance” to the state’s public-health measures led by far-right provocateur Ammon Bundy—turned out in force Tuesday to protest, and ultimately shut down, a state health board’s meeting to discuss stronger steps to rein in the pandemic. Armed fanatics even turned up at the homes of board members, shouting and frightening their children, which spurred the board to shut the meeting down so they could protect their families.
The protest outside the Central District Board of Health offices in Boise was organized by Bundy’s group People’s Rights, the group he created as part of his theocratic army focused on protesting COVID-19 measures. Oddly, Bundy himself was not present amid rumors that he had contracted the disease himself, having not been seen in public for over a week.
However, that was not the only locale where protesters appeared: A number of them arrived outside the homes of board members, armed and shouting bellicose slogans. Commissioner Diana Lachiondo abruptly left the virtual meeting so she could rush home, where her child was alone to deal with the adults outside. “My 12-year-old son is home by himself right now and there are protesters banging outside the door,” Lachiondo told the board. “I’m gonna go home and make sure he’s OK.”
Another commissioner, Dr. Ted Epperly, reported that there were protesters at his home as well, and that “sadly, it’s not under control at my house, and it’s not under control at Diana’s house.”
Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and Police Chief Ryan Lee called CDH Director Russell Duke and asked him to stop the meeting. "It's a matter of safety for everyone at this time," Duke told the board. The board promptly voted to adjourn, with another meeting planned later this week.
Epperly told the Idaho Statesman that a group of about 15 people protested outside his home, “beating garbage cans and flashing strobe lights through my windows. Two came up and knocked on my door during the meeting.” Photos of the protesters outside Lachiondo’s house showed that they were armed.
With Bundy absent, the protest outside CDBH offices—several hundred people waving American and Gadsden flags and chanting anti-health-measure slogans—was led by his frequent cohort Diego Rodriguez, who was an early participant in Bundy’s campaign to resist public-health measures related to the pandemic as “unconstitutional.”
Citing debunked scientific claims, Rodriguez told the crowd that “masks don’t work, the vaccine is bunk, and there is no real pandemic,” later warning health officials inside the building that “the people will not stand for tyranny. We will not stand for our rights being infringed upon.”
One speaker described attending a rally led by British conspiracy theorist (and COVID-19 denialist) David Icke, who in addition to claiming that the world is secretly run by alien lizards also argues that the coronavirus disease is actually caused by 5G cell towers. Another claimed that healthcare workers were killing patients with depression, not the virus.
Bundy himself has led previous attempts to disrupt public health-board meetings, including one in June. His “People’s Rights” organization is built around similar acts of resistance against the health measures, but it also has a larger program of organizing a large grassroots army of far-right activists around a theocratic agenda. It also has been organizing training sessions for its members in weapons use and paramilitary tactics.
It’s doing so in the face of an overwhelming crisis that is about to swamp Idaho’s healthcare system. A week ago, Idaho had the highest test-positivity rate in the nation. The seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases hit a record high Tuesday for both the state and Ada County, its population center, climbing to 1,521.1 cases per day. Idaho also broke its daily record of COVID-19 cases the same day, with 2,012 reported on the state's coronavirus.idaho.gov dashboard. Ada County added a record 499 new confirmed cases Tuesday.
Inside the CBHD, the chief medical officers of Boise’s two largest hospitals—Dr. Jim Souza of St. Luke’s and Dr. Steven Nemerson of Saint Alphonsus—were warning the board of the severity of the crisis. The state’s care facilities are nearing the breaking point, they said, which could require a rationing system in which patients are assigned care according to the likelihood of their survival. “We are keeping our neck at the waterline,” Souza said. “I want you to know, though, how fast we’re treading water.”
All of the St. Luke’s intensive-care units are above 80% of capacity, Souza told CBHD officials, while nearly 100 staff members are forced to call in sick daily due to exposure to the virus or contracting it. “I think it’s more probable than not that in the next two to four weeks, we will find ourselves” where hospitals will be forced to ration care, Souza said. He and Nemerson reported that their models project reaching a crisis level in early January, though it could come earlier if Thanksgiving-holiday infections start impacting the system.
Declaring crisis standards of care would be in the hands of Gov. Brad Little, who has waffled on public-health measures in the face of bellicose opposition, primarily within his own Republican party. Such a crisis would set up a scoring system to determine which patients receive lifesaving care.
One of the protesters—identified by KTVB-TV as Yvonne St. Cyr, 53, of Boise—managed to get around the police barrier outside the CHDB offices and get into the building. She was placed under citizens arrest by a CDH representative and handed over to police, who took her away in handcuffs. She was cited for misdemeanor trespassing and taken to the Ada County Jail, according to a tweet from the Boise Police Department.
"Our community is being severely impacted by this virus and our team members and board are working tirelessly to protect our community's health," Duke said in a statement after the meeting adjourned. "We simply ask that those who may disagree with these difficult discussion points and decisions do so in a way that is respectful and does not endanger our staff, board of health members, and our law enforcement, all who are critical in this response.”
Mayor McLean rebuked the “mob” of people whose purpose was to “intimidate” health board members and their families.
“This has gone too far,” McLean said during Tuesday's city council meeting. “What we saw … was a mob of people that showed up in an attempt to disrupt the very actions that must be taken to protect us. I am deeply deeply disturbed by what I saw. At the end of the day, I made a decision to protect the children home alone that were facing protesters banging on their mother’s door; to protect the agency and staff that were in the room with hundreds of people outside; to protect our officers who will do the work they need to do to follow up to make the arrests and decisions they must related to violence and the threat of violence that they saw tonight.”
She added, “This is not who we are, Boise, and I want us all to remember that.”