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In highly vaccinated Blaine County, omicron still poses risks

St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center
St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center

It’s been more than a year and a half since Sun Valley was one of the U.S. hotspots during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Deb Robertson is an emergency room doctor at St. Luke’s Wood River in Ketchum. She said winter is typically the hospital's busiest season. The population swell around the holidays means more visits for influenza and recreation-based injuries.

She said like in March of 2020, tourists coming from hotspots for the holidays are likely to bring the new omicron variant with them, though it's likely already there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, omicron is now the dominant variant in the U.S.

This time around is different, though, Robertson said, mostly because of vaccines.

“There’s testing, there’s masks, there’s people who are more aware, there’s mask ordinances," she said.

The Wood River Valley was hit so hard in the first wave, in part, because so many healthcare workers were out sick. That, and there weren't enough beds in the small hospital for all the patients needing critical care, forcing some to be transferred to Twin Falls and Boise. Now, Robertson said, health care workers are more than used to wearing masks all the time.

Blaine County has Idaho’s highest vaccination rate. It’s also one of the only places in the state with mask mandates. But Robertson said with the new variant and the cold weather bringing people indoors, the community is still vulnerable.

“Despite our high rates of vaccination, it’s not high enough unless it’s everybody," she said.

According to state zip-code level data, there's variation within the county. Ketchum is more than 150% vaccinated — that number could be skewed by population growth, as well as those who own second homes and tourists getting shots in the city, county leaders have said. In contrast, Bellevue is 54% fully vaccinated.

Robertson said people should get their COVID vaccines and boosters, and their flu shots. She also encourages people traveling to bring a supply of rapid tests.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.