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Blaine County COVID Stats Study Could Have Global Implications
Saturday, February 13, 2021



Blaine County residents have the opportunity to participate in yet another study with global implications that could help shape the battle against COVID-19.

“Right now, we are on the cusp of a project that can help us end (the pandemic),” Dr. Terry O’Connor told those tuning into Blaine County’s Virtual Town Hall on COVID-19 Thursday night. “If you can’t get a vaccine soon, many of you can be part of this effort.”

The six-month observational study targets individuals at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and infecting others.

The Blaine COVID Stats study is looking for adult residents of Blaine County who are 18 or older who have not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine or have not yet had the virus. Those who come in frequent contact with others because of their job, congregate living or social activities are prime candidates.

Multiple people from one family are welcome to take part.

Participants will swab themselves weekly with a nasal PCR test that they mail at no cost to a lab in Seattle and answer a questionnaire. They also will have their blood drawn for lab testing. They will be compensated for their efforts.

Researchers hope to learn how long someone who has been infected is able to spread the virus. They also hope to better understand which immune responses are most helpful and identify what our bodies need to protect us from the novel coronavirus.

The study should help reduce COVID spread in the Wood River Valley since the increased testing will more quickly recognize new infections and prompt measures to help contain them.

The study is co-chaired by O’Connor and Dr. Tom Archie, whose COVID Outreach Wood River project offers free testing to suppress the spread of the virus. The senior research coordinator is Ben Sheppard. Other locals involved include Hollie Bearce of St. Luke’s Wood River Laboratory, and St. Luke’s Research Department’s Dr. James Loveless, Janet Hines and Katelyn Penny.

The Department of Epidemiology at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, N.Y., is among research departments across the country that will collaborate.

The project is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health with support from St. Luke’s Foundation. It opens Feb. 17 with a pre-enrollment questionnaire. For more information, contact or call 208-471-8055.

“This is an opportunity to participate in a unique one-of-a-kind project in the world right now,” said O’Connor.


Although 11 months have passed since the first case of COVID was identified in Blaine County, people are still ending up in the emergency room at St. Luke’s Wood River with low oxygen levels, O’Connor noted. Among them, someone who had COVID in the spring.

“From my point of view, the finish line is not yet in sight. But over the horizon I’m absolutely confident there is a finish line,” he said.

To date, 3,692 Blaine County residents have received at least one vaccine dose, or what Hailey resident Jim Keller calls “the Fauci Ouchie”; 452 have received both.  That’s 22 percent of all the doses administered in South Central Public Health District, even though Blaine County has 11 percent of the total population.

The health district, which oversees eight counties, gets between 2,500 and 3,000 doses a week and is eyeballing a 20 percent increase in coming weeks, said District Director Melody Bowyer. Albertsons and Walmart in Idaho are now getting 5,000 doses a week through the new Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.

Wood River Valley residents began baring their arms on Friday for the first of a hundred vaccine doses that the Hailey Albertsons will offer this week. Then one man happily bought his wife a dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day with the 10 percent coupon the store gave its vaccine recipients.

The Hailey Albertsons should be getting a hundred doses every week for a while, said Bowyer.

Other Wood River Valley residents have made vaccine appointments at Walmarts in Twin Falls and Jerome. And, as of Friday afternoon, there were still appointments open for this coming week.

Some Wood River Valley residents had already been getting vaccinations at an increasingly lengthening list of providers in Burley, Buhl and Gooding.

“There are 62,000-plus seniors in our district so it will take through March to get through the process,” Bowyer said, adding that a hoped-for approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could speed things up.

The messenger RNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been used in other applications for some time. And that’s part of the reason researchers were able to develop the COVID vaccines as quickly as they did, said Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s Magic Valley, Jerome and Wood River.

“It’s a safe way to get a vaccine,” he said, noting that some people have complained of a sore arm or fever.


Blaine County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg noted that Blaine County has the highest percentage of vaccine doses administered in the state, with St. Luke’s Wood River dispensing 100 percent of the vaccine it’s received, at last count.

Greenberg noted that Blaine County’s number of cases is disproportionately high compared with the rest of the state. Officials are concerned that the new UK or South African variant might be one of the reasons.

Blaine County and Idaho are starting to test positive samples for evidence of a mutated virus. But it’s a complicated process that involves sequencing or genetic analysis so samples must be sent out of state.

“We’re at mile marker 20 but not finished yet,” said O’Connor. “We need consistency in the practices we now know works. There is a team out front trying to understand the course ahead. Please have faith we will all get there together in the end.”

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