Sunday, April 18, 2021
Blaine COVID Study Could Play Role in Helping to End Pandemic
“After all is said and done, I would like to think I’ve been part of something that helps us be prepared for the next pandemic,” said Dr. Terry O’Connor as he receives his first vaccination alongside colleague Dr. Deb Robertson. PHOTO: Joy Prudek
Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Blaine County residents have the opportunity to answer the questions that Dr. Anthony Fauci and countless other scientists have been asking as they seek an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two Wood River Valley doctors have launched the Blaine COVID STATS research project. And they’re seeking 600 participants who will be paid for their participation in the study.

“It’s a unique opportunity for small rural community in the Intermountain West be on the world stage of scientific innovation combating the pandemic,” said Dr. Terry O’Connor, an emergency physician at St. Luke’s.

O’Connor is the principal investigator. Dr. Tom Archie, who paired with St. Luke’s Wood River Foundation to offer free COVID tests to asymptomatic people in order to suppress the spread of coronavirus, is his co-investigator.

Dr. Tom Archie runs a holistic primary care family practice called InnerHealth MD, PC in Ketchum.

O’Connor said the study is targeting those who have not had a COVID infection or received the vaccine. It hopes to do “a deep dive analysis” on what mechanisms in someone’s immune system respond to prevent them from getting severe illness and potentially prevent them from spreading illness to others.

“It has an added benefit right off the top for our community,” he added. “If we can get a large number of participants, we can get a large amount of testing, which would help prevent further outbreaks of this disease and keep COVID-19 at bay until everyone is vaccinated. So, it’s a win-win proposition for us.”

Conversely, he said, if variants break through vaccination effort, or people continue to get infected despite vaccinations, it will answer some of the burning questions in the minds of scientists worldwide.

“Without exaggeration, we’ll answer key questions that will help combat this virus for rest of world,” he said.

Blaine County reported no new cases of coronavirus for the fourth day in a row—something that has not happened since Sept. 4. “Our seven-day moving average is now 1.1 cases, the lowest it’s been since Sept. 14,” noted an elated Paul Ries. But Idaho reported 421 new cases over Sunday and Monday. Six more Idahoans have died bringing the death toll from COVID to 1,916.


The study hopes to enroll adults 18 and older who have not had COVID-19 or a vaccine, who are in frequent contact with the public due to work, living situations or social connectedness and who can participate for six months, said Archie. Participants will be allowed to get vaccinated during the study and remain in the study.

Those who are interested can fill out an enrollment questionnaire at

Those invited to participate will have blood drawn to determine whether they might unknowingly have had COVID.

Those with no evidence of prior exposure will be enrolled in Group 1 of the primary investigation group. They will have secure online access to a database where they will be asked to fill out a weekly questionnaire asking whether they’ve had symptoms of illness and other questions. They also will be asked to test themselves with a weekly nasal swab PCR test, which they will drop off at a site to be sent off for analysis.

Household members of participants will be encouraged to participate since household transmission is one of the highest risk factors.

Those who test positive for antibodies with the initial serology test will be invited to respond to weekly questionnaires as part of research to see if they get infected again.

Those in Group 1 will be paid $20 for the blood draw, $2 for each questionnaire and $3 for each nasal swab.   Other participants will be paid $2 for each questionnaire.


O’Connor said they’re hoping to enroll people in the study as quickly as possible, given the acceleration of vaccine rollout.

The research project has been in development for eight months, starting when no one had any idea so many people would be getting vaccinated so quickly.

“The project started as a way to amplify testing in the early months of disease when we were trying to understand the disease process,” O’Connor said.

It took form through contacts with researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and other facilities. At the same time, O’Connor was approached by an investigator at La Jolla Institute who works directly under Fauci at the National Institutes of Health.

“They were studying the immune cellular response, the active live cells in your immune system that clean up infection, and how it works. And whether people have preexisting mechanisms to fight infection even if they’ve never been exposed before. And how key are those functions in making a vaccine and how key are they in preventing you from going to the hospital,” O’Connor said.

Still to this day we really don’t know how these vaccines work, he added. No one has gotten a vaccine and looked in your body under a microscope to see the little immune response armies at work.

“We make assumptions but, by fast tracking vaccines, we made a vaccine that made the most sense with a mechanism that made the most sense. And we know that effect is durable at this point for three months, maybe more.”

Researchers will not ask test participants to deviate from CDC guidance and engage in risky behavior like not wearing masks, O’Connor said. But they will ask such questions as: How many people did you come in contact with during the past week who were not wearing masks?

“This will help understand the risks of potential transmission between someone who’s vaccinated and someone who’s not vaccinated and how necessary mask wearing may or may not be going into the future,” he said.

O’Connor said he’s very hopeful we’re near the end of the pandemic.

“The research project represents another component navigating us to a very low prevalence of disease so we can stop talking about this. Amplifying the access to regular testing and surveillance testing will enhance our surveillance and keep the disease suppressed throughout the summer,” he said.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say the questions addressed by this research project were the very ones being referenced by Anthony Fauci four or five months ago as key questions to help us feel confident that when we have everyone vaccinated that it will be adequate and durable. And it will inform how we might manipulate and change vaccines to ensure we can quickly react and adapt to another variant. It will help us navigate not only past this pandemic but perhaps the next.”


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