As the virus rages, some are convinced it’s too late to stop it

By Mike Baker

The congregation of Candlelight Christian Fellowship gathered around tables in the church sanctuary one night last week to sip coffee and grapple with theological questions. From down the hall came the laughter of dozens of children at play.

With a potluck dinner, no masks and plenty of shared hugs, the night felt like a throwback to the pre-pandemic era except for a noticeable exception on the stage: The lead pastor, Paul Van Noy, was addressing the congregation with the aid of supplemental oxygen, piped into his nostrils from a small tank.

About a month ago, Van Noy, 60, was discharged from a hospital in a wheelchair after a COVID-19 infection brought him to the brink of death. But while that scare ravaged his lungs and rattled the church, it has done little to alter the growing sentiment among many people in northern Idaho that the coronavirus cannot be stopped and efforts to contain it are doing more harm than good.

“I think we just open up and we just let it take its course,” said Nancy Hillberg, 68, as church members mingled after the service. “Just let it be done.”

Amid a record spike of coronavirus cases and the final days of the presidential election, President Donald Trump and his administration have expressed increasing helplessness at containing the virus, focusing instead on improvements in survivability and trying to hold the economy together. While it is a theme welcomed by many of the president’s supporters, it has proved alarming to health officials, including those at the hospital that cared for Van Noy, who are encountering rising resistance to their calls for unity in combating a pandemic that has already claimed nearly 230,000 Americans and threatens to take many more.

In northern Idaho, which is facing record cases and hospitalizations, the local health board last month repealed a requirement that people wear masks in Kootenai County, where Candlelight Christian Fellowship is.

“I personally do not care whether anybody wears a mask or not,” Walt Kirby, a member of the board, said at a public hearing on the issue. “If they want to be dumb enough to walk around out there and expose themselves and others to this, that’s fine with me.

“I’m just sitting back and watching them catch it and die. Hopefully I’ll live through it.”

In an interview later, Kirby said that he initially supported the mask mandate as a strategy to contain the virus and that, at age 90, he wears one whenever he is out in public.

But the mask requirement resulted in immense backlash, he said, in a part of the country where many people moved to escape what they see as an overbearing government.

With the weather cooling and people moving their lives back indoors, the virus has begun an autumn rampage across the country far exceeding the peaks of months prior. On Friday, the nation set a record of more than 98,000 infections in a single day. Deaths have also started to slightly rise again.

Hospital and government officials have seen signs of pandemic fatigue, with child sports leagues looking to restart activities, friends celebrating birthdays and families making plans to gather once again — perhaps for the upcoming holidays. Gallup has tracked social distancing habits of Americans and seen sliding numbers of people practicing social distancing, from 92% in April to 72% in September.

In Idaho, where many residents cherish self-reliance, resistance to coronavirus mandates surfaced early in the pandemic. Hot spots have in recent weeks developed all over the state, which is now averaging about 900 new cases each day, more than triple the numbers seen just six weeks ago.

In the eastern part of the state, the Rexburg metro area has been recording the most new cases per capita in the nation. In the north, Kootenai Health hospital has warned that the facility could exceed capacity and be forced to send patients to Seattle or Portland, Oregon — two areas where restrictions remain in place and the virus is more under control.

In Boise, an outbreak at the Idaho State Veterans Home has resulted in 26 active cases and two recent deaths among residents, along with 16 employees who have tested positive.

Gov. Brad Little has restored restrictions on large gatherings but has faced blowback from some fellow Republicans and resisted a mask mandate. Last week, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin joined with a group of lawmakers in posting a video calling for an end to all state and local emergency orders, vowing to ignore them in the future. In the video, McGeachin laid a gun on a Bible.

“The fact that a pandemic may or may not be occurring changes nothing about the meaning or intent of the state Constitution in the preservation of our inalienable rights,” the political leaders said in the video and accompanying letter.

In Twin Falls, where a rise in coronavirus patients has forced St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center to redirect pediatric patients elsewhere and cancel elective surgeries, Dr. Adam Robison said he wished that efforts to control the virus were not seen through the lens of politics.

“We’re right at the cusp of not having any room anymore,” he said. “I’m getting awfully nervous right now, to be very frank.”

Van Noy, the Coeur d’Alene pastor who spent 18 days in a critical care unit, had expressed skepticism of masks before he got sick, did not require them in church and vowed to defy any order that he cancel in-person services. But he said that while his illness led doctors to at one point give him a 20% chance of survival, he has seen others in the congregation who have had only minor infections. So while he wanted people to be cautious to avoid spreading the virus, he said, he remained skeptical of government efforts to contain it.

“I’m not convinced that all of our efforts have had a great impact on the spread or lack thereof,” Van Noy said. “I do think that we’ve done a lot of harm to our economy, to the psyche of personages. I mean, we see depression. We see all kinds of issues that are developing because people have a sense of hopelessness.”

When he went to cast his ballot recently, Van Noy wore a pro-Trump mask to the polling site. As he arrived, he said, a poll worker told him he could not wear the mask because it amounted to inappropriate electioneering.

Van Noy removed the mask, and went inside to cast his ballot without one.

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