One county in Idaho experienced one of the worst COVID-19 epidemics in the world. Here’s how he recovered

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Idahoans eager to enjoy a meal at their favorite restaurants on Saturday the first day of the second phase of the gradual reopening of Governor Brad Little’s business after the decision to stay at home across the state in late March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. | BY DARIN OSWALD

TWIN FALLS (Idaho Statesman) – Two months ago, Blaine County appeared to be in dire straits.

The rural community of Idaho, popular with tourists and celebrities, was the second county in the state to diagnose COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Blaine County soon overtook the most populous counties in the state in confirmed cases. He reported the first case of spread in Idaho. It was the home of the first two coronavirus deaths in the state. It made the headlines in the national newspapers for its incredibly high infection rate per capita.

And then, almost as quickly, the wave of COVID-19 cases in Blaine County began to ebb. In May, as the number of new daily cases started to drop across the state, they slowed to a net in Blaine County. And despite an early eruption of coronavirus-related deaths, Blaine County has not reported another since its fifth on April 8.

The county still has a staggering infection rate (216 infections per 10,000 population) thanks to its early outbreak and a relatively small population of around 23,000 people. But according to numerous accounts, Blaine County has repelled the coronavirus. As of Friday, there were only six out of 510 active cases, which is less than the active number in Gooding, Jerome, Minodoka and Twin Falls counties, all of which are also part of the South Central Public Health District.

Local leaders say the turnaround is due to swift action, strict restrictions and a community that has come together (while staying at home, of course) to turn the tide and rally resources. Now, as Blaine County joins the rest of Idaho when it reopens, it faces the possibility of an increase in infections – a challenge officials say they are equipped to handle.

“As we see encouraging health data, we are concerned that we will not be able to return to March,” said Ketchum mayor Neil Bradshaw in a telephone interview. “We cannot remain paralyzed. We have to move on. “

HOW DID BLAINE COUNTY STOP THE CORONAVIRUS EPIDEMIC?

Blaine County began its attack on the coronavirus very early on.

“March 13 was the first positive case we had,” said Jacob Greenberg, chairman of the Blaine County Commission, in a telephone interview. “In the morning of the 18th … (health officials) waved a red flag and told me that the community had spread, and I immediately went up the chain to the Ministry of Health and Welfare – be social and in the governor’s office. At noon, we had a meeting on (creating) an isolation order. “

Greenberg said he asked Governor Brad Little to order county residents to take shelter there, and the governor made the order on March 19. – work deemed OK to continue in the rest of Idaho – and asking residents and foreigners to cross county boundaries only for the most part.

“I think that’s what saved us right away,” said Greenberg. “And I think that the diligence of the community to adhere to this policy, that got us out. “

State and county quarantine orders have also largely shut down tourism, which was a major driver of traffic to Blaine County and the likely source of the region’s initial epidemic.

“It took everyone by surprise because there had been no cases in Idaho, so people continued to live normal,” said Brent Russell, an emergency doctor at Ketchum who recovered from COVID-19 . “So once it became clear that we had a real problem here … it took a week or two for people to really, really start social distancing and everything. But I think people have done a good job. “

Blaine County had its maximum number of new cases confirmed on April 2, when 95 new cases were announced. Since May 1, only 12 new cases have been reported in the county. Russell said there were fewer seriously ill COVID-19 patients at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, the county hospital.

“People are always taking precautions, and that is what they should do,” said Russell. “… Just a month ago, I didn’t see as many people wearing masks. It’s a little thing people can do that keeps them working. And I think people are still very far from society here. “

Russell also said that the rural aspect that made the Wood River Valley high risk may well have been his saving grace.

“In New York, how to escape people without staying in your apartment? ” he said. “One advantage we have in this county more than most places is that there is very little high density housing. Everyone lives in a house and has a car. … We have been able to solve the problem much more easily than New York can or other metropolitan areas can. “

ANTIBODY TEST CREATED BY THE COMMUNITY TO ASSESS THE SPREAD OF COVID-19

Bill McLaughlin, Ketchum’s fire chief, said the pandemic had worried him about the paramedics he supervised, who were at regular risk of exposure to the coronavirus. And he was tired of “sitting still” while waiting for the situation to get worse, he said in a telephone interview.

“You go into the fire department because you have the ability to do things,” he said. “When you get into something where you feel helpless, I had to find something where we could do more than take people to the hospital.”

So he turned to his sister Colleen McLaughlin, a New York epidemiologist at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Albany College has partnered with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the City of Ketchum to begin an antibody screening study. They took samples from 400 Blaine County residents at random to see if the residents had been infected with the coronavirus.

“We had all these questions that we wanted to answer for the community,” said Bill McLaughlin. “What was the prevalence of the disease, how many people had been infected but had no symptoms. “

McLaughlin said the latest samples were sent to the University of Washington laboratory on May 19. He can’t wait to see the final results and get a better idea of ​​what the real infection rate is – in symptomatic and asymptomatic people – in Blaine County. .

“We will have a very good picture of the prevalence of antibodies in the community,” said McLaughlin. “Once we know that the antibodies will last, so to speak, and actually confer immunity, we will know pretty well how close we are to a situation of collective immunity. We know we are not there, I can tell you all that. ”

At the same time, local health care providers have led their own testing effort, called COVID-19 Response Group, to perform a different type of antibody test. The rapid test involves pricking a patient’s finger and testing the blood on a card that displays a negative or positive result similar to a pregnancy test. The team, including pharmacists Cathy Swink and Paula Shaffer, nurse Ryland Mauck-Duff and doctors Brock Bemis and Russell, tested around 400 people, Bemis said in a telephone interview.

He said that Swink had ordered the tests after noticing the community’s request for more tests.

“There were so many unknowns that I think people were really hungry to think about what happened,” said Bemis.

Russell said that rather than adding to the research data on COVID-19, this testing effort was aimed at identifying asymptomatic spreaders to help control spread in the community.

“We found an asymptomatic carrier rate of 1.5% in our population,” said Russell. “So our hope was to find all of these people and quarantine them, because that could make a huge difference in recovery. “

According to Russell and the group’s website, the COVID-19 intervention group recently stopped testing after the FDA changed its testing requirements. They are working with potential partners to get the effort back on track, said Bemis.

HOW WILL BLAINE COUNTY KEEP COVID-19 IN BAY AT THE REOPENING OF IDAHO?

In recent weeks, Blaine County has entered the first two phases of reopening Idaho with the rest of the state. But Greenberg said sentiment in the community was mixed.

“Many people are enthusiastic about reopening and restarting businesses,” he said. “Obviously, people are suffering financially. There is also some apprehension from some people who are always afraid to go out. We have people who wear masks and others don’t. There are a variety of feelings and opinions. ”

The mayor of Greenberg and Ketchum, Bradshaw, said he felt confident in the COVID-19 figures in the county, which have continued to decrease over the past month. However, Idaho has tested just over 2% of its population, and county-level test figures are not available.

“It is definitely time to take the next step,” said Bradshaw. “We are now at a point where we have to consider opening our economy and our social life responsibly, a way that reassures those affected by the virus while allowing others to put food on the table.”

Certainly, things will not simply return to normal. Greenberg and Bradshaw said the business owners have been diligently developing plans to comply with state reopening protocols to keep employees and customers safe. Several large annual gatherings in the Wood River Valley have been canceled, which could deter some tourists.

Melody Bower, director of the South Central Public Health District, told the statesman in an email that residents of Blaine County must continue to “fight for (their) health” while restrictions continued to relax.

“If you are invited to an event that will encourage overcrowding, ask the organizer what they are doing to make social isolation a priority,” said Bower. “Patronize restaurants and grocery stores that protect your health. Leave when an area is too crowded or if someone does not seem well. Applaud, do not be ashamed, people who take obvious measures to protect the health of their community, such as wearing a mask in public places. No one is just a spectator in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. We all have a role to play and we can all do our part to limit community spread. “

The health district warned on Tuesday that it is stepping up “cluster testing” in some organizations in the district and anticipates that the number of positive results may start to increase again. Greenberg said this type of additional testing – as well as a comprehensive state plan for testing and contact tracing – will be essential to keeping Blaine County on track.

Russell said he expects COVID-19 cases to increase.

“It will happen,” he said. “The more we relax home stay orders, the more people will catch it. It’s a balance game, and nobody really knows where the right balance is. Locking out is bad and opening is bad – it’s just a worse question. ”

Yet he said that Blaine County’s progress to this point is “a success, of course.”

“It shows what happens when everyone is part of a community to protect someone else,” said Russell. “If you go to the store and wear a mask, you are a better citizen than if you don’t (one). “

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