tightened coronavirus restrictions

Ketchum, Hailey and Blaine County all recently tightened coronavirus restrictions in response to mounting caseloads.

With coronavirus cases surging throughout Idaho, Blaine County is categorized in the “red”—or critical—risk level in its risk-assessment model, the highest level in the model.

Idaho recorded a record surge of more than 1,000 new confirmed and probable cases of coronavirus infection last Friday, and the statewide total continues to rise. The state Department of Health and Welfare reported an additional 2,086 cases tallied on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, bringing the statewide total to 53,790 by Monday, when the statistics were last updated. The state reported that there have been 531 deaths related to COVID-19 illness.

State data indicates there were 10 new cases of coronavirus in Blaine County over the weekend, bringing the total through Monday to 773 confirmed cases since March and 40 probable cases. Blaine County’s seven-day moving average of the ratio of new daily cases per 100,000 people had risen to 44.7 on Friday but dropped to 24.8 by Monday. That figure is just below the rate of 25 per 100,000 that is the threshold for a “critical” ranking in one of the categories in the county’s risk-assessment model.

The county will update its online risk-assessment informational dashboard on Thursday, with new data from Oct. 11-17. For the week of Oct. 4-10, Blaine County had an average of 32.9 new cases per 100,000 residents and a 15.41 percent rate of positive tests. A test positivity rate above 10 percent meets the criteria for “critical” risk.

The county’s COVID-19 risk-level plan sets forth detailed guidelines for authorities and residents to consider as responses. Guidelines in the “red” level recommend consideration of a stay-at-home order, requiring the use of face coverings and strictly limiting social gatherings.

The county and the cities of Hailey and Ketchum have issued specific orders in the last week in response to the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for the St. Luke’s health system in the Magic Valley, Jerome and Wood River Valley, said the rise in numbers is a major concern, particularly as the weather gets colder. He said mitigation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus can also serve to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses.

“We know that COVID fatigue is real, but we must all remain diligent in doing our utmost to prevent spreading COVID,” he said. “As it turns colder, we will all be spending more time inside and should think about limiting our interactions with individuals outside of our immediate household and wearing masks around others. Science shows this can decrease transmission.”

Town hall meeting

County leaders and regional health officials assessed the recent surge in coronavirus cases and related hospitalizations in a video-conference town hall meeting last Thursday, calling for renewed efforts to combat the potentially deadly virus and bring the numbers down.

The meeting came as the multi-county South Central Public Health District released new statistics indicating that more coronavirus cases were recorded in a recent one-week period than in two entire months in the early stages of the pandemic. The Health District reported Thursday that case counts had surged to an average of more than 120 cases per day within its coverage area, with more than 840 cases reported in the week of Oct. 4-10, more than were reported in March and April combined.

The district includes eight counties that range from Blaine and Camas in the north to Twin Falls and Cassia in the south.

“Our case trends and the impact we are seeing to our health-care system are alarming,” said Melody Bowyer, district director.

In the meeting, several members of the panel expressed hope that Blaine County residents will respond diligently in working to prevent the spread of the virus, as they did earlier in the year.

Bowyer noted that a spike in COVID-19 illnesses is putting pressure on the major hospital in Twin Falls, St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center. She noted that hospital staff have seen patients with both COVID-19 and the flu.

“Beds and staffing are strained,” she said.

Bowyer said contact tracing conducted by the district has indicated that the virus is being transmitted in households, workplaces and schools and at small gatherings and some sporting events. She noted that the state has given the district additional resources to conduct rapid testing for the virus in schools.

Dr. Terry O’Connor, a physician with the St. Luke’s Wood River emergency department, said he is aware that Blaine residents have “heard a lot of bad news” about the virus but is hopeful they can respond to the new challenge of rising case counts and illnesses.

Coronavirus cases were significantly lower in the summer, he noted, but recent statistics indicate they are now higher than at the start of the pandemic. He said the community’s risk model is not a means to justify a lockdown or generate fear, as some residents might believe.

“It’s just good medicine—to be prepared for the worst, to trust good evidence,” he said.

O’Connor stressed the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene as measures to slow the spread of the virus, noting that he has reduced his social circle to a few select people. He said he is “really worried about our county right now” but believes “we can navigate through this together.”

The three county commissioners all offered words of concern about the increase in coronavirus cases and encouragement to bring those numbers down.

“This is a long race, so please don’t give in to COVID-19 fatigue,” Commissioner Dick Fosbury said.

Fosbury encouraged residents to consider volunteering to assist the community in safe settings and to take advantage of the region’s “great outdoors” to help maintain physical and mental health.

Commissioner Angenie McCleary said recent trends are both “disappointing” and “sad” but noted that public agencies, nonprofit groups, St. Luke’s and other county partners are all working to assist residents in counteracting the spread of the virus and to mitigate its negative impacts.

“I really believe as a community that we can get this back under control,” she said.

McCleary said she is working to secure additional funding and resources for the county to increase the level of testing.

Commissioner Jacob Greenberg reiterated the importance of staying vigilant with safety measures and asked residents to consider helping others.

“Reach out to others who need help,” he said. “There are people in need in our county right now.”

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