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County leaders and regional health officials assessed a recent surge in coronavirus cases and related hospitalizations in a video-conference town hall meeting 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 have surged to an average of more than 120 cases per day, with more than 840 cases reported in the week of Oct. 4-10. That’s more cases than were reported in March and April combined.

The district includes eight counties: Blaine, Camas, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls.

“Our case trends and the impact we are seeing to our healthcare system is alarming,” said Melody Bowyer, district director. “If we continue this course, we will likely reach critical risk level by next Thursday in several counties.”

Cassia, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties are all approaching the “critical” risk level, the Health District reported.

In fact, Blaine County is already in the “critical”—or red—category, as rated in its own risk-assessment model. The model—which is based on the risk-assessment system established by the Harvard Global Health Institute—calculates each Thursday the community’s risk by averaging data from the previous week. “Critical” is the highest of the model’s four risk levels, with others being “high,” “moderate” and “minimal.”

On Thursday, Blaine County’s online informational dashboard indicated that the county’s positivity rate for coronavirus tests from Oct. 4-10 was 15.41 percent. The county recorded a seven-day average of 32.9 cases per 100,000 residents during the same week.

Several neighboring counties are in the high-risk category, as ranked by the Health District, with numbers trending upwards.

Those statistics provided a somewhat grim backdrop to the meeting of county commissioners and health officials on Thursday evening, but 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 informed officials of the high numbers recorded in the district and 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, schools, 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 that case counts 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.”

GwenCarol Holmes, superintendent of the Blaine County School District, said four staff members and 16 students in the district have tested positive for the coronavirus this fall, with three cases believed to have been contracted in schools.

She told the panel that data indicates that high school students have generally fared well with a hybrid system of learning in which they are going to school two days a week and working online other days. However, elementary school students have not performed as well under the challenging conditions, she said, noting that increased vigilance in combating the virus is needed to lower the threat and thereby allow more on-campus education.

“Schools are critical to our community and are the future of our community,” she said.

The three county commissioners all offered words of concern about the increase in coronavirus cases, as well as words of 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. “We’ve done it before. We can do it again. We’ve learned a lot. … We need to go strong. We need to continue to work together. We need to support each other. We need to take care of our neighbors, our friends and family.”

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, especially with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching.

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

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