The Wood River Community YMCA

With the Blaine County School District staggering in-person learning, many families have pursued other options for the at-home days. The Wood River Community YMCA, seen here, has its own program, helping kids maintain their studies even while out of the classroom. But with 40 students and staff currently quarantining out of BCSD schools and cases mounting in the county, it’s unclear how long educators will operate under this new learning model.

The threat of coronavirus in Blaine County jumped from the yellow to orange Thursday on its COVID-19 risk assessment system, which is based on metrics devised by the Harvard Global Health Institute.

County commissioners will discuss next week whether additional countywide restrictions or safety protocols are appropriate to address the increase in cases, commission Chairman Jacob Greenberg told the Idaho Mountain Express.

The Harvard Global Health Institute’s COVID-19 metrics are based on factors including new daily case numbers per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average, new daily deaths per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average, and new daily hospitalizations per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average.

The Health Institute recommends that stay-at-home orders be issued when a community reaches level orange. The institute also recommends “rigorous test and trace programs.”

While Blaine County has agreed to adopt the same metrics used by the Harvard Global Health Institute, the county does not have to follow the institute’s recommendations for each risk level.

Greenberg wondered Thursday whether the bump in cases in Blaine County could be tied to recent events such as the start of the school year and Labor Day weekend. He said he would be cautious to describe—or treat—the recent increase as a trend without more data.

In the meantime, county commissioners are urging Blaine County residents and visitors to wear masks and practice other safety measures such as hand-washing and social distancing.

“Now is a critical time to come together as a community to again reduce our case numbers,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said in a statement. “I know people are fatigued, but we must remain vigilant and not let down our guard.”

Blaine County’s leap from yellow to orange on Harvard’s risk assessment comes alongside news that south central Idaho has more than doubled its weekly COVID-19 case count in the past four weeks, according to a statement released by South Central Public Health District on Tuesday.

In the week beginning Aug. 30, the district registered 187 new cases across its eight counties—Camas, Lincoln, Gooding, Blaine, Minidoka, Jerome, Cassia and Twin Falls. The district counted 471 new cases for the week ending Sept. 26.

In that four-week period, infection rates spiked significantly in six of the eight counties. Lincoln County’s new case count has decreased, and Jerome’s spiked at the beginning of September before returning relatively near its starting point. Minidoka’s numbers have more than tripled and Twin Falls’ have more than doubled. Cassia County’s numbers have increased from seven in the week beginning Aug. 30 to 96 in the week ending Sept. 26.

“This isn’t one event exposing people to the disease. This isn’t one county facing a surge,” Public Health Division Administrator Logan Hudson said in the press release. “We’re looking at an increasing trend across most of the district that may continue to rise if people don’t take precautions.”

Blaine County, too, has seen its first significant spike in months, counting seven new cases in the first half of September and 54 in the second half. On Saturday, Blaine County experienced its largest single-day increase in cases since April 8, adding 11 new confirmed cases, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

The district also reported that Sept. 24 saw the largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases across the eight counties: 151 new confirmed and probable cases.

“Most of the spread we are seeing starts when one person is infected at work or at a social event and then unintentionally brings the disease home to their family,” Epidemiology Program Manager Tanis Maxwell stated in Tuesday’s release. “If we can incorporate social distancing and mask use into our daily lives we can continue to socialize but protect our families from disease.”

The Wood River Valley had been at level yellow since the Blaine County commissioners and other local entities agreed to move the county’s risk assessment from the South Central Public Health District’s to the Harvard Global Health Institute’s on Sept. 24.

The shift to a new, stricter system to assess risk stemmed from a desire to be more proactive in keeping the county’s then-low number of cases low, and the fact that the demographics in Blaine County are significantly different than the health district’s other seven counties due to the large number of visitors and second home owners, Commissioner McCleary said at the time.

An Adaptive Planning Committee, consisting of representatives from St. Luke’s, South Central Public Health District, Blaine County, Blaine County School District, Visit Sun Valley and The Hunger Coalition, has come together in recent months to discuss metrics and recommendations for mitigating the virus’ spread in the Wood River Valley. The committee supported Blaine County’s decision to adopt its own system based on the Harvard Global Health Institute metrics. On Tuesday, the city of Ketchum voted in favor of following Blaine County’s lead, adopting Harvard’s model over the South Central’s. (Read more about Ketchum’s decision here.)

Hailey Mayor Martha Burke said that county leaders—including fellow mayors, county commissioners and representatives from St. Luke’s, the South Central Public Health District, Blaine County School District and Blaine County Disaster Services—met on Monday morning to discuss the rise in COVID-19 cases.

“We had our cases almost double in the last week. There are 40 students and staff that are not in school because they are either quarantining or have had family members test positive,” Burke said, referencing a Monday report from BCSD Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes. “We have to remind our neighbors and friends to wear masks and social-distance.”

Burke said those reminders will be especially important as the pandemic continues and people begin to experience more COVID fatigue.

“I want to make sure the community knows that we’re seeing a bit of a spike—we’ve got to get that under control. We want our children to [stay] in school and we want our restaurants to continue to function,” she said.

Burke added that she was concerned about students walking or biking home from school in large groups without masks.

In a Tuesday interview with the Mountain Express, St. Luke’s pediatrician Dr. Katie Quayle said kids should continue wearing masks around their friends after school gets out.

“Even if they’re just walking home from school, it’s important that every kid over two years old wears a mask outside when they can’t [social distance],” she said. “That should be the general rule.”

As of Thursday, Blaine County was reporting 653 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 32 probable COVID-19 cases among county residents.

The Health District is currently operating two hotlines for information about COVID-19: one in Spanish, at 208-737-5965, and one in English at 208-737-1138. The hotline is open on business days from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For up-to-date information on local and regional COVID-19 cases, visit the health district at www.phd5.idaho.gov/coronavirus.

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