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Virtual town hall focuses on current status of COVID-19 in Blaine County

The Blaine County sheriff, a county commissioner and local health officials answered questions from the public about the county's current status of COVID-19.

HAILEY, Idaho — Blaine County has been a frequent topic of discussion, as recent reports rank it as having one of the highest coronavirus infection rates per capita in the U.S.

Thursday night, county leaders and local health officials held a virtual town hall to provide updates and answer questions from the community about the current status of the virus in Blaine County. 

Each of the four panelists talked about how they feel the shelter-in-place order and social distancing measures have been effective and the county is starting to see those effects. 

Dr. Terry O'Connor, an emergency physician at St. Luke's Wood River in Ketchum, said more than 50% of the hospital's current patient volume are people with COVID-19. 

Even though they are still treating a high number of patients for COVID-19, O'Connor said they haven't necessarily seen the situation worsen over the last week or so. 

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Between 10% and 15% of coronavirus patients in Blaine County have required hospitalization. Because of that, they have not reached medical capacity at this point.  

Many questions were asked by the community about testing in the county. 

“We have processed just about 1,000 tests at this point and sampled about 1,100 tests for the county," O'Connor said. "The turnaround time is speeding up because there’s not an overload on the system but we’re also increasing our capacity.

“Our testing capacity will ramp up quite quickly, hopefully by the end of the week," he continued. “We have two devices and testing mechanisms coming into play that are looking for the virus or active infection in your body so looking for the genetic material of the virus while it’s in your body.” 

RELATED: No clear timeline for when Idaho's economy will recover from coronavirus pandemic

With the new rapid testing equipment coming to the county, health workers could potentially run up to 1,000 tests per day and ideally, results for most tests would come back within 24 hours. 

“We were waiting 10 days, 14 days on some to get the results back," said Logan Hudson, division administrator with South Central Public Health District. "Some we got back today were sent just a few days ago so this is a huge benefit getting these back sooner."

Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins also talked about how there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the jail. However, four employees with the sheriff's office had been tested, with one coming back positive. Harkins said that employee is recovering at home. 

He also addressed some rumors circulating in the county, wanting to clear up any confusion. As far as National Guard members coming in and putting up roadblocks, that is untrue. Harkins said his deputies will not be stopping travelers who come into the county and asking them for documentation. 

As for the shelter-in-place order, Harkins said most residents seem to be obeying it. 

“We haven’t issued any citations so we’ve seen pretty good compliance with it and it seems to be working,” he said.

RELATED: When is COVID-19 expected to peak in Idaho?

According to Hudson, the health district would need to see more improvement and continuity before considering lifting the shelter-in-place order. 

“We need to see a steady decline in new cases over a period of time," he said. "I’m keeping my fingers crossed, we’ve seen a steady decline over the past few days. I think we need to at least see that another week before we really start making strong recommendations to peel back.”

Blaine County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg was also asked if the county would be screening people who fly into the local airport. 

“We haven’t had a rash of people, the flights have diminished dramatically, the numbers are not really even worth discussing in terms of the number of people who come in on those flights," he said. "So we’re not thinking about screening people at the airport. We don't think right now that's necessary and we're not even sure if it's legal."

During the town hall, health officials also discussed Blaine County's recent announcement to start antibody testing. That means a random sample of both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients in Blaine County would be tested. It is not a vaccine or diagnosis but would be used for research purposes to help determine if antibodies can build immunity to the virus. 

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