NAMPA, Idaho – A popular Idaho ski destination had one of the highest per-capita rates of coronavirus in the country at the start of the pandemic last year. Now the Sun Valley region is leading the state – and most of the country – in vaccinating its citizens.
Numbers from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare show that more than 87% of Blaine County residents ages 12 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Idaho Press reported. Eighty percent of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated, which puts the county in the top 10 among more than 3,000 counties nationwide, according to healthdata.gov.
That’s far higher than Idaho’s statewide average of about 50%. The nationwide average this week reached 70%.
“Blaine County has shown a remarkable willingness to work together as a community,” said Brianna Bodily, public information officer for South Central Public Health District, the health authority for Blaine and seven other counties, including Twin Falls. “They understand that this disease impacts all of them, so they make efforts together to unite against COVID-19. Vaccination is just one of many things that they have done.”
Home to resort towns Ketchum, Bellevue, Hailey and Sun Valley as well as Carey, Blaine County early in the pandemic was the epicenter of Idaho’s coronavirus outbreak. Out-of-state travelers brought the virus to the ski destination and lifted the area of a little more than 20,000 people to one of the highest per capita infection rates in the country.
Blaine County commissioners declared a disaster on March 16, 2020, and Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a shelter-in-place order for the county three days later. The county also required residents who had traveled out of state and out-of-state visitors to self quarantine for 14 days.
The surge in cases early in the pandemic caused panic in the community, said Luke Snell, owner of Luke’s Pharmacy in Hailey. The area’s struggles with the disease early in the pandemic made its residents more receptive to being vaccinated, he said.
While the area got the virus under control last summer, cases have ebbed and flowed since, and visitors and travelers continue to drive cases in Blaine County. On Monday, the South Central Public Health District was monitoring 26 confirmed and three probable cases of COVID-19 in Blaine County, the Idaho Mountain Express reported.
Cases are rising across the county, thanks to the highly infectious delta coronavirus variant, Bodily noted, but Blaine County trends identified by the health district show tourists, travelers and unvaccinated people are driving the spike.
“In that area we have a high rate of residents who are vaccinated. But for all of the people who are visiting that area who are not vaccinated, the virus is able to spread just as quickly among them,” Bodily said.
While visitors often bring the virus to Blaine County, that doesn’t mean locals – most of them, anyway – want the visitors to stop. Destination towns rely on tourists to fuel their economies. “Keep things open” was one driving force behind widespread vaccines, said Mike McKenna, executive director of The Chamber of the Wood River Valley.
Going forward, McKenna said he is not sure how public and private entities will respond to the slight surge in cases. But he said there’s a general feeling that the community did the right thing by wearing masks, social distancing and reducing the spread of the virus.
“We’ve done what we needed to do, and we want the freedoms to still be able to say, ‘I’m vaccinated, or I had COVID,’ like so many people I know here,” McKenna said. “We feel like we’re prepared for it. We don’t want to shut down again. So, take care of yourself.”
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