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The Blaine County commissioners may consider restricting group gathering sizes in light of a recent uptick in local cases of COVID-19, members of the commission indicated Tuesday, though no decisions have been made yet.

Last Thursday, the county moved from risk level yellow to risk level orange within its coronavirus risk assessment system—shifting the county’s threat level to “high”—based on factors that include case numbers, hospital capacity, testing capabilities and the share of tests with positive results.

The city of Hailey, which saw 42 new cases over the past week, will consider additional coronavirus-related restrictions at a special City Council meeting Wednesday night. Those potential measures include narrowing the list of exemptions for the city’s mask requirement and limiting group gathering sizes when the community is at the orange or red risk level, according to a meeting agenda.

Commissioner Angenie McCleary said Tuesday that she would like to see the commissioners consider instituting a similar limit on gatherings in the county, and Commissioners Jacob Greenberg and Dick Fosbury said they would be open to having such a discussion in the coming weeks.

“I would hold off on making a decision today on [limiting gatherings] and see what Hailey does,” Greenberg said. “I certainly don’t want to wait too long, though, because if we don’t take precautions this thing could get out of hand.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the South Central Health District’s COVID-19 dashboard listed a total of 669 confirmed and 34 probable cases in Blaine County, with 59 of those cases still being monitored. The bulk of cases reported over the past week have been concentrated in Hailey and Bellevue, Greenberg said.

Meanwhile, cases in nearby Twin Falls County continue to rise, with 38 deaths and 468 of 2,527 total cases still actively being monitored, according to the most recent data available Tuesday afternoon.

The regional nature of Blaine County’s economy, with frequent travel between Twin Falls and the Wood River Valley, poses additional challenges to county health officials, noted former Commissioner Larry Schoen during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting. The interdependency of the Magic Valley region makes cooperation between county leaders even more important, Schoen said.

“We have daily commercial traffic in and out of Blaine County [to other Idaho counties], where they have even higher case rates and where attitudes may differ on how best to stay safe,” Schoen said.

Commission candidate Kiki Tidwell weighed in during the public comment period to offer suggestions, too, including the hiring of additional contact tracers. She also suggested tracking and publicly sharing data about COVID patients who work in Blaine County but live in other counties. (The nature of the reporting system, which does not provide information beyond a patient’s county of residence, would make that impossible, McCleary clarified.)

A six-month study of COVID-19 infections among Blaine County residents, however, could shed some additional light on how the virus is spread around the community. The study was first proposed to the county commissioners by a research division of Amazon Web Services, Greenberg said; the National Institutes of Health and St. Luke’s are also supporting the project. As of Tuesday, the study was awaiting approval by the Western Institutional Review Board (a private company that offers review services to institutions), Greenberg said.  

The study will focus on two cohorts, according to Greenberg: people older than 40 and those younger than 40 who work in environments where they are at risk of contracting the virus, such as first responders.

If approved, the study would include the testing of people who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms—a capability that St. Luke’s Wood River does not currently have.

“I think the weakest link in our system that we have today is that because of the lack of adequate supplies, the hospital system has too high a standard in limiting testing,” Commissioner Fosbury said. “I’m particularly encouraged to hear that we may be in the very near future able to offer testing to people that are at a low level of symptoms, asymptomatic or they’ve simply been exposed to someone who’s been infected. I’m very hopeful.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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