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‘Permademic,’ ‘radical agendas’: Residents cite politics to support health board candidates

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Central District Health offices, in West Boise, are the public health headquarters for Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

Hundreds of people wrote in to support their picks for Central District Health board

Dozens of health care workers wrote in to support one candidate for Ada County’s public health board. Then, prompted by Idaho political groups, hundreds of Ada County residents — and some from outside the county — wrote in to support a different candidate.

The public comments submitted as of Wednesday to Ada County’s three commissioners offer a microcosmic look at the increasingly blurred line between public health and politics in Idaho.

Ada County commissioners will interview candidates Monday for the next physician member of the Central District Health board. The candidates as of Thursday are Dr. Sky Blue, a local epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist; Dr. Ryan Cole, a pathologist who owns Cole Diagnostics; and Dr. Stanley Moss, a local orthopedic surgeon. (One of the initial candidates, Dr. Travis Kemp, withdrew his candidacy and put his support behind Blue.)

The commissioners are expected to choose their nominee either after the interviews or on Tuesday. Their nominee must be approved by a simple majority of seven commissioners in Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties — the counties in CDH’s jurisdiction.

The Idaho Capital Sun reviewed every email submitted by the public to the commissioners between late June and Aug. 3.

Overall, about 450 people supported Cole; about 60 wrote in to support Blue; and several wrote in to voice their opposition to one of those two candidates.

None of the candidates represents a political party. The board seat is not elected or partisan.

Right, left politics redefine public health in Ada County

The vast majority of emails sent before Aug. 2 were in support of Blue. And the vast majority of them came from doctors, nurses and other health care workers. A few came from Ada County residents.

The letters praised Blue for having a calm and clear communication style. They said he was adept at seeing multiple perspectives. They noted his experience at the bedside at local hospitals, diagnosing and treating patients.

“Dr. Sky Blue would bring tremendous experience to Central District Health given his work as an infectious disease physician. This specialized expertise is more relevant than ever to allow science a seat at the table when important public health decisions are being made,” said a letter from the Idaho Medical Association, signed by several doctors, including seven in Central District Health’s region.

Local doctors and nurses said they worked with him, consulted him when they needed advice on a patient or learned from his speaking engagements over the years.

“I have witnessed first-hand Dr. Blue’s ability to communicate to groups of people with diverse viewpoints, while applying an incredible skill to convey complex information in simple terms in a way that facilitates compromise,” one physician wrote. “I have especially appreciated Dr. Blue’s pragmatic approach over the last year of balancing health measures with normal life needs. I think he is ideally suited to fill this board seat and will provide expert medical input that is unifying rather than divisive.”

Blue has advised public health officials and others during the pandemic. He voiced concerns about hospitals becoming overwhelmed and described to health board members in Canyon County last year how masks worn indoors in public spaces can help to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

A few of the emails opposed Blue, generally in support of Cole instead.

One letter called him “a radical leftist candidate.”

That and other emails reviewed by the Sun offered no examples of Blue’s own actions or statements that they opposed.

The Liberty Dogs and Ada County Republicans rally for public support

Several emails opposed Cole, generally in support of Blue instead.

The CEO of a Boise family medicine practice said Cole “has shown a predilection for advancement (of) conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims, demonstrating serious errors in medical judgment and a willingness to risk to public health.”

A doctor in Meridian expressed their “disapproval of Dr. Cole’s role in discouraging vaccination and promoting unproven medical treatments in our community.”

On Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, the Ada County Republicans issued a call to action for local Republicans to tell the county commissioners whom they wanted to fill the vacant seat, previously held by Dr. Ted Epperly, a local family medicine physician.

The group Idaho Liberty Dogs also issued a call to action on Facebook. “I don’t have to tell you how important this appointment is in Ada County as Biden continues to talk forced vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and potential school closures, etc.,” it said, calling Blue a “Liberal candidate” whose appointment “would be a disaster.”

The group cited no examples of things Blue said or did that they believed would be troublesome.

“The left knows that Dr. Cole will vote with Raul Labrador to stop unnecessary mandates and lockdowns. Dr. Cole is a strong conservative and we need to help the commissioners get him over the finish line with their appointment,” it said.

The group offered sample wording for the letters of support; it contained one typo. That exact wording appeared in at least 102 emails.

The local Republican party said Blue was “a clear darling of the Left” and urged people to support other candidates.

Hundreds of people flooded the commissioners’ email inbox to support Cole.

Several of them appeared to misunderstand the public health board’s role. For example, one resident thought it regulated doctors and surgeons.

A few others offered their support for Cole, citing inaccurate information.

“He gave a great interview on the Nate Shelman show on 7/29 where he went into specifics of recent case data,” one person said in their email supporting Cole’s nomination. “Instead of relying on politics, he focused on the data and the trends. I even learned that those with O positive blood were at reduced risk of COVID infections.”

That some blood types are more susceptible to COVID-19 was a theory that emerged earlier in the pandemic. Since then, a large-scale study — from a Utah-based health care system with facilities in Idaho — found that connection to be unsupported.

At least two dozen of the emails came from people who didn’t live in Ada County or even within the counties that belong to Central District Health.

But many of the emails in support of Cole came from Ada County residents who voiced concerns about the health board’s decisions last year regarding COVID-19. They thought the public health orders went too far, they said.

Emails supporting Cole came from health care workers, public school teachers and business owners.

Some worried that, without Cole, Central District Health would push them to get vaccines or — as the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads and cases rise — that CDH might issue mandates or take actions affecting local businesses and schools. (The Idaho Legislature this year changed the law, so that any public health order issued by a health board can be reversed by county commissioners.)

“Please appoint someone who will stand up for our individual liberties to refuse experimental covid shots and not to wear a mask,” one email said. “This genocide has gone far enough. We all know what is going on and you all need to put a stop to it!!”

Another resident said he and his wife had moved to Meridian “less than a year ago in large part due to the radical agendas our previous state was pushing. The vast majority of people we’ve talked with here in Ada County have the same reasons.”

He said Cole would represent their beliefs.

Emails sent to commissioners on Aug. 2 alone used the words “conservative” 13 times, “freedom” 25 times and mentioned COVID-19 vaccines at least 32 times and mandates 22 times.

An email from a West Ada School District teacher said, “We need our voices heard and represented.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.