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'There's A Certain Amount Of Luck Involved' For Idaho County With No COVID-19 Cases

Thomas Hawk
Flickr Creative Commons
There are currently no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Butte County, Idaho, home to Arco.

COVID-19 has touched all corners of the country, but there are still about 180 counties without a single confirmed case, according to a recent Washington Post analysis

Butte County is one of 10 Idaho counties with no coronavirus cases. With just more than 2,500 people, it’s the third least-populated county in the state.



“We are a pretty tight-knit, rural community,” said Rose Beverly, a Butte County Commissioner. “We're definitely [agriculture]-based." Cattle ranching families make up a large share of the county population.

“It's obvious to point to the fact that we're extraordinarily rural," said Brad Huerta, the CEO of the 14-bed Lost Rivers Medical Center in Arco, Butte’s largest city of about 1,000 people. But that doesn’t fully explain why there are no cases there, he said, as the virus has found its way to many other rural communities.

And it’s not for a lack of testing, either. 

“People that come to the hospital who are presenting ‘COVID’ symptoms are certainly tested, so we’ve done our share of testing," Huerta said.

As of last week, about 60 people in the county had been tested for coronavirus at the hospital or its clinics, according to Huerta. That’s a higher proportion of tests than have been administered in the Southeastern Idaho Public Health District overall. 

Huerta is convinced that the biggest difference has come from the community itself. People are social distancing, he said, businesses have been following the governor’s guidelines and residents are willing to go out of their way to help each other.

“I believe that that is a huge reason why we have dodged that bullet to date,” he said.

One community member sewed masks and now Arco and the county are handing them out for free. The tiny, locally-owned grocery store, A&A Market, which typically has fewer than 10 people working at a time, started doing curbside delivery. The county put out fliers offering to get groceries for people who don’t feel safe going out. 

Beverly, who also works for the medical center, thinks those efforts to follow social distancing protocols definitely helped limit opportunities for disease transmission. With nearly a quarter of residents 65 or older, that’s important. 

But she also said there’s probably no particular reason Butte doesn’t have any coronavirus cases. 

“There's a certain amount of luck involved in any of that,” she said.

And while the county is tucked in a valley, surrounded by volcanic buttes, it isn’t as remote as it seems. People commute to work at places like the Idaho National Laboratory and regularly drive to Idaho Falls for shopping trips. 

Credit J. Stephen Conn/Flickr Creative Commons
Butte County is the gateway to central Idaho's mountains and rivers.

Geographic isolation might’ve helped during the slack season, but Arco is the gateway to central Idaho’s renowned rivers and its tallest peaks in the Lost River Range. It’s also on the northern edge of the Craters of the Moon National Monument. 

All this potential traffic makes Beverley think Butte won’t be immune to the virus. “It’d be unrealistic to think this is never going to come here,” she said.

To try to make an outbreak even less likely, the Lost Rivers Chamber of Commerce canceled Atomic Days, a yearly celebration that commemorates when Arco was the first city in the world to be powered entirely by nuclear energy in 1955. 

The late July event usually brings about 10,000 people to the city of 1,000 for a parade, a rodeo, a softball game, even a citywide water-gun fight. 

“There couldn’t be a more perfect storm for that many people in an enclosed space,” said Huerta.

Local leaders listened to medical professionals who said it was probably wise to cancel. Beverly said while the decision wasn’t a difficult one for her to make, she does feel bad for local business owners, many of whom rely on the high of Atomic Days to get through the slower winter months.

“When the decision was made to stop Atomic Days, there were a lot of people that just threw their hands in the air, threw their mask in the trash,” said Mike Mcintosh who owns the Lost River Motel in Arco, one of a handful of local businesses in town. 

Credit Thomas Hawk/Flickr Creative Commons
Arco was the first city in the world to be powered exclusively by a nuclear reactor, as part of an experiment in 1955.

Mcintosh was understanding of the need for social distancing precautions, including Gov. Brad Little’s orders, but canceling Atomic Days was frustrating to him. There was still time to wait and evaluate the situation later on, instead of canceling in early May, he said. 

The loss of the major event likely won’t hurt his business as much as others, but overall, Mcintosh predicts motel visits to be down about 30% compared to last year.

“It’s going to be a long, slow summer,” he said.

Because there are still no cases in Butte County, it makes decisions like canceling Atomic Days that much more difficult, said Beverly.

“People are like, ‘What’s all the hype about? We don’t have anything here.’” 

She estimates about a quarter of the county feels that way, though she said it’s mostly interactions on Facebook and at the store that give her that impression.

Most people in the county don’t know anyone who’s been sick of COVID-19, or even anyone who's been tested for the virus. So, when Beverly explains why restrictions are in place, she tries to make it personal.

She asks, 'What if we let Atomic Days go on, and your grandmother got sick?' Then, she said, sometimes she sees them pause, and reflect.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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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.