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COVID-19 testing continues at locations throughout Blaine County, which has a significantly higher infection rate than neighboring communities.

As COVID-19 vaccinations continue and Idaho’s average number of new cases is falling, Blaine County is recording elevated case numbers that lead all other counties in the state.

Data compiled this week by the Idaho Mountain Express indicates that the county’s rate of new daily cases per hypothetical 100,000 residents was 56.5 on Monday, based on a seven-day average. The second-highest rate in the state was recorded in Madison County, at 49.8, and in third was Teton County, at 49.4. Neighboring Camas County and Lincoln County both recorded rates well below Blaine’s: 25.8 and 8.0, respectively.

According to state data, Blaine County has gained more COVID-positive cases in the past four weeks, state data indicate—426—than during a surge in the first four weeks of the pandemic, when 412 cases were recorded. The only four-week period in which more positive cases were recorded started two weeks into local tracking of the pandemic; in the span from March 28 to April 18, 449 cases were counted.

On Thursday, Feb. 4, the county remained at the overall “critical” risk level for COVID-19 in the county’s model, using data from Jan. 24-30. The county’s number of new daily cases per hypothetical 100,000 residents was 61.4, based on that seven-day average. The rate of COVID-19 tests registering as positive was 12.52%.

Statewide, though, case numbers are trending downward. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 449 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and 240 on Saturday, Feb. 6. That’s compared to 1,538 cases on Jan. 5 and 2,298 cases recorded on Dec. 9.

So, why is Blaine County experiencing a surge in COVID cases while other parts of Idaho are seeing declining numbers?

Brianna Bodily, public information officer for the South Central Public Health District—which serves eight counties, including Blaine—said district experts are investigating “several theories” but one clear cause of high case rates in Blaine County is likely its status as a travel destination. An Idaho Department of Health and Welfare report on COVID hotspots in the state indicates that places with the highest case rates “are all counties that experience high tourism,” Bodily said.

“Despite public health guidance, people are still traveling,” she said. “Whenever you leave your community and go to another, the chance of spreading disease from community to community goes up. When you have a place that experiences a high rate of travel from communities all over the United States, there is a good chance a handful of those individuals may be unknowingly carrying a virus.”

Previously, Health District epidemiologists have suggested that people not following suggested COVID-19 mitigation measures for social gatherings could also be a factor.

Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, a member of the governing board of the South Central Public Health District, said the county is tracking the situation but hasn’t identified a clear cause for the surge in cases.

“We don’t know for sure why we’re seeing elevated case numbers,” she said. “We’re doing significantly more testing, especially of asymptomatic individuals, than anywhere else in Idaho.  However, if it was merely an issue of testing, then we would expect to see a lower positive rate.

“It is also possible that we have one of the more contagious variants in the community. We are working with the state to see if we can do that analysis. … The county is continuing to monitor the situation and is in weekly contact with the cities.”  

Joy Prudek, public relations manager for St. Luke’s Wood River, agreed with McCleary that one factor could be the presence of a highly contagious variant, and that residents should “assume it’s here.”

Prudek said St. Luke’s Wood River was treating two patients hospitalized with COVID-19 illness on Tuesday and had five COVID-19 patients in the hospital on one day last week—the most in a single day since last March.

“It’s still here, and it’s making people sick enough to be hospitalized,” Prudek said.

Prudek noted that one St. Luke’s Wood River emergency room doctor suggested that people with symptoms of COVID-19 should be tested and should quarantine even if they have previously had the virus, as some people can contract it more than once. And, even as vaccinations continue, people should continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash their hands and limit social gatherings, she said.

“We know people are tired of it, but until we get herd immunity, it’s still around,” she said.

McCleary and Bodily also stressed the importance of people staying vigilant during the current case surge.

“I think so many of us feel like we’re on the home stretch now that the vaccine is being distributed, but the reality is that it will take months before people have enough access to vaccine to create any kind of herd immunity,” Bodily said. “If people refuse their opportunity to be vaccinated, it may be much more difficult to reach herd immunity than we were hoping, but in Blaine County we’ve seen mostly eagerness to receive that additional protection.”

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