Monday, October 26, 2020
Doctor Lowers the Hammer on Blaine County
Herbert Romero wore a specially made face mask to celebrate the finale of Hispanic Heritage Month Thursday evening.
Saturday, October 17, 2020


Blaine County has the potential to get “real sick,” given its current surge in COVID cases, an emergency room physician told those attending Blaine County’s Virtual Town Hall Thursday night.

Dr. Terry O’Connor, director of the Blaine County Ambulance District, said that the county recently notched 53 new cases of coronavirus over a one-week period. That’s more than the 47 cases that were reported over a seven-day period just before the county went into lockdown and St. Luke’s Wood River shut down in March.

His pronouncement came on the eve of a day that Idaho would add an all-time high of 1,094 new cases to its rolls of those who have or have had COVID--15 of those Blaine County residents. The state's hotspots are Twin Falls, Madison and Canyon counties.

“I do not want to go back to lockdown. It’s an effective hammer but a blunt tool with too much collateral damage,” he said. “Some might say I’m being alarmist, fear mongering. As an emergency physician, I think you demand and ask of me that I think about the worst-case scenario… I’d argue fear mongering is not a bad thing—it’s just good medicine. If unmitigated, this same amount of disease would bring us back to where we were at the height of disease in March and April.”

The Virtual Town Hall came on the day that Blaine County climbed from the yellow “high risk” category on the Harvard Global Health Institute’s health assessment plan into the red “critical” category, which means there’s substantial spread in the community.

In response, Hailey businesses decided not to hold Halloween Hoopla this year. The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation postponed its Ski Swap, and the Argyros Center for the Performing Arts postponed its Young Dubliners concert, a screening of a Madonna movie and next week’s Bingo night.


South Central Public Health District’s executive director Melody Bowyer warned that case counts in the region were “surging beyond anything we’ve seen so far in this pandemic.” Counties under SCPHD’s jurisdictions, including Blaine County, reported 847 cases from Oct. 4-10. That’s more than the 811 cases reported in the region during the first peak in the months of March and April combined.

“Remember: Then your local hospital had to be closed and patients had to be diverted to Twin Falls,” she said.

Twin Falls, Cassia and Minidoka counties are headed toward critical red risk levels as case counts and positivity rates surge.

“Our case trends and the impact we are seeing to our health care system is alarming,” Bowyer said. “Unfortunately, COVID fatigue is real. We’re seeing surge in cases with several counties reaching critical levels in the number of new cases and positivity rates.”

The surge, which has seen the Magic Valley set new records for COVID-19 cases for three weeks in a row, has severely impacted the availability of beds and staff at St. Luke’s Magic Valley hospital, Bowyer said.

The hospital started the week with 40 COVID patients in the hospital—the highest since the pandemic started. The hospital has had to bring in physicians from Boise and ask nurses to work extra hours.  And the hospital is having to consider postponing elective surgeries and other procedures.

The previous high in hospitalizations was 22 in mid-July.

Contact investigators are racing to keep up with the caseload, which has quadrupled from a month ago.

“We have seen quite a few cases in households, some in workplace, some in schools. Some of the events are through small gatherings where people were positive but didn’t know they were positive,” she said.

SCPHD is urging people who have tested positive not to wait for contact tracers to call but to let close contacts know as soon as they get test results so they can quarantine and keep the virus from spreading further. Close contacts are those who have spent at least 15 minutes within six feet of a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19 up to two days before symptoms began.

“We are working quickly and expanding our staffing but, in some cases, it still may take a few days to make contact,” said SCPHD’s Epidemiology Program Manager Tanis Maxwell just before the town hall.

The majority of cases in the region involve young people ages 18 through 39 years of age. Since August cases among children ages 5 to 17 have increased dramatically. Two, including one Sun Valley-area child, developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), a severe and potentially fatal COVID-19-related disease.

“We need to put our politics and personal differences aside to come together and protect our community,” said Bowyer.


Blaine County Schools Superintendent Gwen Carol Holmes said that it’s common to have 50 to 100 staff and students quarantining because they’ve been exposed through family and out in the community.

“So far, we’ve kept (the rate of positive cases) fairly low,” she added. “Even when there is an incident, most don’t need to quarantine because they’re keeping 6 feet away, wearing masks, washing hands.”

Holmes said that academic data shows that older students picked up where they left off when schools closed last March as the pandemic started. But the school board is mulling having elementary students return to school four days a week, rather than the two-day plan they are currently in.

“We have lost ground with our elementary students,” she said. “We’re focusing on literacy and mathematics. We’re letting everything else sit on the shelves because we need to make up what we’ve lost.”


Dr. Terry O’Connor said that he spent the summer preparing for the predicted surge that he did not want to happen this fall.

He praised the community for keeping new virus cases low over the summer, even as a flood of visitors poured into the area and disease rates increased in surrounding counties.

“This community answered the call, kept their distance, embraced masks, washed hands and had negligible disease through the summer,” he said.

While the disease wasn’t gone, the county stayed in the yellow zone throughout the summer with a few sporadic outbreaks in banks, restaurants and catering events, O’Connor said. And, while St. Luke’s Wood River has discussed cancelling elective surgeries and other procedures in response to the new spike, it is not actively pursuing that at this time.

But, he added: If you have something that’s not critical we would thank you for postponing.

O'Connor added that he cancelled a rock climbing trip to the City of Rocks in southern Idaho and pared the circle of people he associates with outside of work to six in response to the surge.


Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary noted that the Harvard Global Health Institute plan tells Blaine County officials if the county is at the green (minimal), yellow (moderate), orange (high) or red (critical) level.

It suggests strategies to mitigate outbreaks, such as requiring employees to work from home and ordering residents to shelter in place. But none of the strategies are a requirement.

McCleary said commissioners and others felt Blaine County needed a different plan than that of SCPHD’s because of its many visitors, second homeowners and commuters.

The dashboard is updated every seven days instead of every 14, as SCPHD’s is. It’s more stringent so fewer cases are needed to put Blaine County at a high-risk level. Those using it include the valley’s cities, St. Luke’s Wood River, Sun Valley Community School, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, NAMI and SVED.

McCleary noted that the latest dashboard puts Blaine County at a critical level with 15.41 percent positivity rate and 32.9 cases per 100,000 residents. The latest round shows that 14 people have tested positive in the 40- to 49-year-old category during the past week; 11, 30-39; 10, 20-29; seven, 50-59; four, 60-69; three, 70-plus, and two, 14-17. There were no new recorded cases in those 13 and below.

“It’s disheartening to see where we are at this point but I believe that as a community we can get this back under control. We’ve done it before. We’ve learned a lot,” she said.

Blaine County Commissioner Dick Fosbury added his exhortation: “This is a long race so please do not give into COVID fatigue. Wear your mask and maintain distance because you care about others.”


Idaho added a whopping 1,094 new cases to its total on Friday for a total of 51,704 since the pandemic started. It gained six new deaths for a total of 523.

Blaine County added 15 new cases for a total 803 cases,


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