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Public health officials concerned about 'alarming' coronavirus surge in Magic, Wood River valleys

"If we continue this course we will likely reach critical risk level by next Thursday in several counties," said the director of South Central Public Health District

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Healthcare officials are sounding the alarm as COVID-19 cases continue to surge throughout southern Idaho.

The South Central Public Health District, which covers an eight-county region, reported more cases last week than in March and April combined.

District leaders are especially concerned about what's happening in Twin Falls, Cassia and Minidoka counties, where case counts there are surging.

"Our case trends and the impact we are seeing to our health care system is alarming," SCPHD Director Melody Bowyer said in a statement. "If we continue this course we will likely reach critical risk level by next Thursday in several counties.”

According to Bowyer, investigators and contact tracers are racing to keep up with all the new cases.

Any Magic Valley residents who have recently tested positive is urged to let close contacts know as soon as possible - so those people can quarantine.

Close contacts should quarantine for 14 days, starting the day after their last contact with a confirmed case.

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

Case counts are also rising in Blaine County, which was Idaho's original COVID-19 hot spot back in March.

Numbers there went down significantly over the summer, but they're back up again and doctors are voicing concerns.

KTVB's Kim Fields talked with Dr. Frank Batcha, chief of staff at St. Luke's Wood River to find out what's happening there.

Note: the following interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Fields: "What does the current COVID-19 caseload look like in Blaine County?"  

Dr. Frank Batcha: "Our numbers are going up, unfortunately. They've been trending upwards for about the last month or so. Pretty steeply over the past two weeks. We were upwards of 40 new cases in the last seven days."

Kim Fields: "What happened? Because Blaine County seemed to be doing so well. They seemed to have a handle on COVID-19." 

Dr. Frank Batcha: "Yeah, that's a great question. I wish I had a great answer for you, Kim. We're trying to figure that one out. I think that there are probably a lot of things that are sort of a perfect storm of what's happening. Certainly as the weather is getting cooler and people are spending more time indoors and there's less opportunities for the distancing that we recommend.

"You know there's no good data to support this, but obviously there's always the concern about kids being back in school. I will tell you that the numbers in the schools have been trending along with what the overall community rate is. So it's not any higher, but it doesn't seem to be in lower as well."

Kim Fields: "What is the current situation look like at St. Luke's Wood River? How many COVID-19 patients do you currently have?  Are there any concerns about staffing or bed issues?"  

Dr. Frank Batcha: "Currently we have no patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which is great.  Currently, our capacity is very good. I think the data I saw from earlier today is that we're at 36% capacity and our staffing levels are good. Now that might be a little bit of false reassurance for a couple of reasons. Number one, our sickest patients, we won't care for them here. They're going to go to our referral hospitals. And our primary referral hospital is St. Luke's in Magic Valley. And the capacity there in the ward that takes care of COVID patients exceeds 96%.  So they're at critical levels. The other thing that is somewhat concerning is we're seeing our numbers surge and if we think about the course of the coronavirus illness, it's typically the more serious cases have a little bit of lag time, just the natural course of the illness, it takes a week or two for people to get to that really sick phase. So there's typically a week or two lag time in things like clinic visits, [emergency room] visits and hospitalizations." 

Kim Fields: "So you're concerned, it sounds like, with what's to come?"  

Dr. Frank Batcha: "Absolutely."

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