As other parts of Idaho experience an increase in COVID-19 cases day after day, Blaine County once more faces the possibility of being overrun with cases, local experts warned during a digital town hall hosted by the county last Thursday.

“I am not an alarmist, but certainly we are now at a position, currently, where we are at threat again,” said Dr. Terry O’Connor, St. Luke’s emergency department physician and medical director of the Blaine County Ambulance District, during the meeting.

Due to the number of people traveling in and out of the community combined with drastic rises in the region, such as in Twin Falls County, the coronavirus could again swamp St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center and require reinstatement of an isolation order.

“Effectively we have some neighboring counties who have a fire on their hands, so they’re doing their best to put it out,” O’Connor said, emphasizing that it is imperative for the community to embrace the health measures that medical professional and elected officials have been imploring.

That said, portions of Blaine County gained a better glimpse into what the pandemic has already done to the community, via an antibody study initiated through a partnership with the Ketchum Fire Department, Blaine County Ambulance District, University of Washington, Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Science, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Colleen McLaughlin, the lead epidemiologist who analyzed the data collected from the study, discussed those results in the meeting. Researchers hoped to study 1,000 people, and ultimately 917 completed the study, “which was an excellent participation rate,” McLaughlin said during Thursday’s town hall. More than 2,000 people volunteered to participate within a 48-hour period.

However, volunteers were from only three of the county’s five cities: Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey. Of those 917, 208 tested positive for antibodies, roughly 23 percent of the participants in those cities.

Participants for the study were selected by a statistical model that captured the age and sex distribution of the cities, in order to generate a representative sample of those communities for the test. According to McLaughlin, Carey and Bellevue were not included because too few people volunteered.

In Ketchum, 35 percent of participants tested positive for antibodies, 17 percent in Hailey tested positive and in Sun Valley 19 percent tested positive for antibodies. The youngest age group had the highest prevalence of antibodies, with 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds displaying antibodies. All other age groups had a prevalence of roughly 20 percent. Men had a slightly higher prevalence than women, with 24 percent testing positive for antibodies versus 21 percent in women, neither of which were statistically significant differences, according to McLaughlin.

The Mountain Express was previously told that the study would also look at racial groups, though none of that data was provided during Thursday’s town hall. McLaughlin did not respond to a request for comment on that matter by press deadline Tuesday.

Essential workers—meaning those who continued to go to work during the stay-at-home order such as grocery store clerks and health care workers—had a lower percentage of positive antibodies than those who stayed home. To McLaughlin, that indicates that mitigation measures were effective.

Significantly, 60 percent of people who thought they had contracted the coronavirus but hadn’t been tested for it did test positive for antibodies, McLaughlin said. Meanwhile, less than 5 percent of those who did not think they had had the virus tested positive for antibodies.

There will be more interesting results coming in the future as the Fred Hutchinson Center continues to do further analysis of the blood collected, she said.

The study is also considering selection bias in its results, accounting for the likelihood that people were more likely to volunteer if they believed they had had the virus, which may create an inaccurate measurement of antibody prevalence in the community. McLaughlin said that even though the analysis is complete, a description of the scientific methods used to collect the data has not been finished. That report should come in the next few weeks.

Tracking positive cases

South Central Public Health District Director Melody Bowyer spoke on the tracking of nonresident COVID-19 cases and said the process by which that information is tracked is being assessed to determine how the Health District can track both in-state and out-of-state residents who test positive within the district. Positive cases are currently counted by whatever residence information patients supply when they get tested, meaning that if a patient is tested in Blaine County but claims a residence in California and is found to be positive, that case will be counted in California, not in Blaine County.

O’Connor said Thursday that he did some preliminary research to pull together all the testing that has been done in the county, including at St. Luke’s, private physicians and the Sterling Urgent Care facility in Hailey. He said he found only five out-of-county positive test results from the period between June 20 and July 9. Even during the peak of Blaine County’s cases, out-of-county positive cases were minimal, he said.

The Health District continues to do contact tracing for every positive case reported in the district’s eight counties, and anyone with questions regarding the coronavirus can call the district’s hotline at 208-737-1138.

Para cualquier pregunta en español, llame al 208-737-5965.

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