Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Ketchum Residents Score High on Antibody Tests
Ketchum Firefighter draws blood from Café Della’s Liza Green for the Fred Hutchinson/Albany College antibody test.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020


Ketchum residents have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 disease in Blaine County, according to the preliminary results of an antibody study conducted in May.

The rate of COVID infection in Blaine County was significant, with more than a third of Ketchum residents testing positive for antibodies, said the study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

Of course, that’s what you might expect from a county that led the nation—even the world—in per capita rates of confirmed cases at one point.

The test, which is as accurate as it gets, required that two teaspoons of blood be drawn from each person.

Antibody prevalence was highest in Ketchum at 35 percent. That’s one of the highest rates per capita in the nation. The test estimates that 23 percent of the county’s adult population has antibodies.

Elsewhere, estimates of positive antibody prevalence range from nearly 25 percent in New York City and 32 percent in Chelsea, Mass., to 3.2 percent in New York State, between 2.8 percent and 5. 6 percent in Los Angeles County and 2.8 percent in California’s Santa Clara County, according to a report in Scientific American.

“The good news is we know that many people here have had it, which means they probably won’t catch this disease again, although we don’t know how long you keep antibodies and how strong they remain over a period of time,” said Blaine County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg.

“But it’s kind of a cautionary tale because it means that, if 23 percent of the people have antibodies, there’s another 77 percent who haven’t had it,” he added. “And, if we let down our guard and people get infected again, it could overwhelm our system and we could be back at square one so we really need to be cautious and follow social distancing guidelines and hygiene guidelines to be safe.”

More than 2,500 Blaine County residents volunteered to take the test. Tests were administered to 917 of those volunteers via a somewhat random selection process, according to Ketchum Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin who helped spearhead the study.

The specificity of the test was 99.9 percent, indicating only one in one thousand would be a false positive result.

Some participants noted that they did not develop antibodies, even though they lived in the same household as someone with the disease and did not practice social distancing. Additional research is looking into this finding.

While antibody response may confer immunity, research is still underway. Most researchers estimate that 60 percent or more of the population might need immunity to reach herd immunity.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who has been on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told AARP this week that when you get an infection and you make antibodies, your body remembers how to do that. So, if you get re-infected, your body will kick into gear to make antibodies much quicker the second time, she said.

“People shouldn’t be concerned that their antibody levels may wane because, if they do get re-exposed, they’ll make antibodies very quickly,” she added.

 The antibody test given to Blaine County residents determined the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies in both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.

But researchers are using the results for more than determining what percentage of Blaine County might have had the disease.

They are also using it to:

  • Determine whether there are indicators for predicting a mild or severe reaction to COVID-19
  • Determine the transmissibility of the virus
  • Predict the duration of a COVID-19 outbreak and whether herd immunity can be reached in a community
  • Develop vaccines for COVID-19
  • Determine if there is a correlation between certain classes of blood pressure medication and severity of illness.

The study was a collaboration between the Hutchinson Center, Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Ketchum Fire Department and Blaine County Ambulance District.

“As a community we were fortunate to have the opportunity to partner with some of the most prestigious research institutions in the country on this research,” said Ketchum Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin, who helped instigate the study along with St. Luke’s Emergency Physician Dr. Terry O’Connor. “We played our part in helping them understand disease transmission and vaccine development. In turn, we learned more about our community’s exposure to COVID-19.”

Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw concurred: “Our valley is certainly doing its part to help further the understanding of the coronavirus. There is no doubt that COVID-19 hit us hard. Our recovery is testament to the health and safe practices of our community.”

Greenberg said a testing innovation task force is trying to institute another study on frontline and essential workers. The test, administered by a group from Washington State, would be a longitudinal study of 500 Blaine County residents over a longer period of time—probably six months.

“We hope to solidify it soon,” Greenberg said. “It will include medical workers, the police department, fire department, school district, grocery store workers, construction workers—all those guys who could be more susceptible to it because of their line of work. We’ll send surveys out and see who’s interested and then choose 500 people and follow them over a period of time.”

One of the things the test will attempt to do is determine how long it takes to test positive for antibodies.

“If you see them getting sick, then you can pretty much know that the rest of the community is getting sick, as well,” said Greenberg.

Blaine County quickly amassed nearly 500 positive cases of coronavirus after the first one was announced March 14. But only a few have been tabulated in the past couple weeks, even though the State of Idaho has seen some pretty hefty numbers—like Monday’s 54—since it began lifting shelter-in-place orders.

“Right now, I think we’re doing really well because we’re not getting any positive test results. And, if we are, there’s just a couple over two weeks of time,” said Greenberg. “But we’re going to have to be vigilant because we have visitors coming to town and we have to make sure they understand what the rules are that we play by here so they don’t get sick or they don’t bring illness with them.”


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