Six months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, Blaine County—once a national hotspot—is again an anomaly. This time, it’s for positive reasons, according to St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center’s Dr. Frank Batcha.
Thanks to community buy-in and compliance with health experts’ recommendations, Batcha said that residents of Blaine County have adjusted their personal lives, and the expectation for visitors to follow the three W’s—wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask—has remained high, resulting in coronavirus cases remaining low following a nationally highlighted surge in March.
“We’re doing pretty good here in Blaine County,” Batcha told the Mountain Express on Tuesday.
As of Monday, the South Central Public Health District was reporting a total of 595 confirmed and 20 probable COVID-19 cases in Blaine County since the pandemic began. According to data from St. Luke’s Health System, in mid-March, the 14-day rolling average of positive test results was between 50 and 56 percent, while the county’s rolling 14-day positivity rate as of Monday was at 1 percent, with results still pending for seven people. During the two weeks from March 14-27, 714 people were tested and from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13, 253 people were tested.
“It’s incredibly encouraging,” Batcha said. Even so, he said, “We’re living in a world now where we have to be vigilant all the time.”
According to the Health District, Blaine County’s risk level has remained at minimal risk since the district began tracking regional risk levels in August—meaning case numbers have remained low, and the hospital is not facing shortages in bed capacity. Neighboring counties, including Camas and Lincoln counties, remain moderate—meaning the average of new daily cases is between one and 2.5 per 10,000 residents. Currently, Blaine County has a daily new case average of 0.37 per 10,000 residents, while Camas County has an average of 1.29 and Lincoln County has an average of 1.33. On Monday, the Health District issued a press release stating that Camas County now has community spread, making it the last county in the district’s eight counties to have a person test positive for the disease without an identifiable source.
Now deep into the pandemic, district Public Information Officer Brianna Bodily said some people in the South Central’s coverage area continue to resist responding to questions from contact tracers, whose job it is to monitor infected patients for at least 14 days and to investigate whom that person may have infected. Specifically, Bodily said, those contacted sometimes refuse to answer questions regarding their employer, ethnicity and whether they’ve attended any large gatherings during the time they likely contracted the disease.
“Some people still refuse to answer any questions at all, or refuse to name close contacts because they’re worried about the stigma,” Bodily said in an email to the Mountain Express on Monday. “To be clear, most people are still willing to help us when we call—there are just a few people who are unwilling.”
The Health District currently has two full-time investigators, 10 part-time investigators and nine staff members who assist with investigations when necessary, Bodily said.
“Many of our recent cases have had few contacts outside of their household, but if that changes and contact tracers are overwhelmed, investigators can help with that workload, and many of our other Health District staff are trained to step in and help if necessary,” she said. “Because case numbers fluctuate greatly, we’ve worked hard to create a flexible system to make sure all cases are covered but we also don’t have staff members twiddling their thumbs during a slow day.”
As fall approaches and the flu season begins, the Health District is recommending that residents get flu vaccines by Oct. 1, rather than by the end of October as recommended in years past. Though individual health districts in the state do not track influenza cases, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare “tries to keep a general idea of flu activity for each district,” Bodily said, “But I’m unsure how they do that.
The Health District is currently not planning any new or unusual tracking for the flu this year and instead is encouraging residents to get their flu shots.
St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center has maintained its COVID testing criteria, testing only those who are experiencing COVID-like symptoms or patients who are either being discharged to a long-term care facility or being admitted to the hospital for a procedure, regardless of whether symptoms are present.
On Monday, the most up-to-date data available as of press deadline Tuesday, St. Luke’s Wood River tested 30 people. Results were still pending for 27 of them. Since Sept. 1, St. Luke’s Wood River has only reported two positive COVID tests, with a total of 34 test results still pending.
Sterling Urgent Care in Hailey has also continued to conduct both COVID testing and COVID antibody testing. According to its website, patients need to call to schedule an appointment and will be tested accordingly, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms of the virus. The care facility also has a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-certified rapid antibody test that gives results within the hour and will indicate whether the patient is actively suffering from COVID or if they’ve accumulated antibodies against COVID after being infected.
Albertsons in Hailey began offering COVID-19 testing at the beginning of September following a collaboration with Phosphorus Diagnostics, a company led by scientists who use “genomics to improve human health,” according to its website. Phosphorus’ at-home COVID testing has received emergency use authorization by the FDA. The tests consists of a saliva swab sample that is completed by the patient and delivered to Albertsons pharmacy to be sent to a lab for testing, with results reportedly returning within three days. According to a pharmacy technician at Albertsons, the test is $139.99 and is not covered by health insurance companies.