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Alba Iulia
Thursday, June 4, 2020

Tourists have brought prosperity to an Idaho ski valley. They also brought covid-19.

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But this year, somewhere between the elevators and the lodge, tourists have left behind something else: a deadly virus.

Now the valley is a coronavirus hotspot, with one of the highest infection rates per capita in the country. With 192 cases in a county of only 22,000 people – including two dead – the share of the population tested positive is higher than even in New York.

The impact was dramatic: the small hospital in Ketchum, the regional hub, partially closed after four of its seven emergency physicians were quarantined. Patients are transported to facilities hours away. The fire department relies on volunteers with a new face, trained in one day, to drive ambulances.

Everyone in town knows someone who has fallen ill.

The coronavirus “tore this valley apart like wildfire,” said Brent Russell, one of the emergency physicians.

“I would say that about a quarter of the people I know here have symptoms compatible with convection,” he added, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Russell, 50, would treat them normally. But he was one of the first in the region to contract the virus. After three and a half agonizing weeks – including nights when he woke up barely able to breathe – Russell returns to work only to help cope with the ever-increasing influx of new patients.

With a handful of other ski centers in the western United States, the Wood River Valley – with a population density about 3,000 times that of New York – provides a glimpse of what happens when the new coronavirus escapes from cities and attacks rural America.

Although sparsely populated areas offer some protection against a virus that develops on social contact, they are barely immune. And once the infection sets in, the effect in rural communities could be more severe given worn-out health systems, long distances to hospitals and the elderly.

“The epidemic has not yet really affected many rural communities. But it will be. And they know that if it hits them, it will hit them harder, ”said Olugbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the Center for American Progress.

The vast majority of coronavirus patients in America remain clustered in and around cities. This is where the disease started in the United States, when infected visitors arrived from abroad.

But there are few areas – even remote ones – that remain untouched by the coronavirus as it continues its relentless spread.

Montana and North Dakota recently recorded their first coronavirus deaths. In Washington State on Monday, Governor Jay Inslee (D) noted a “disturbing” pattern of rural counties that had remarkably high positive test rates – one of which reached 21%. In rural Alabama, meanwhile, residents are preparing for larger virus outbreaks that “could appear anywhere,” said representative Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), Who represents a large and sparsely populated region in the northern half of the state.

In this case, he said, he fears an impact that “exposes vulnerabilities across rural America”, including underfunded health systems and patchy broadband networks.

For now, at least, the first forays of the virus into the countryside are accompanied by a silver lining: they hit areas that are better able to resist them than most.

Some of the most affected areas, per capita, are recreation centers renowned for their natural beauty which attracts large numbers of tourists and have flourished over the past decade of economic growth. The counties surrounding Vail and Crested Butte in Colorado and Park City in Utah – all ski centers, have seen particularly high concentrations of patients.

As Blaine County, home to the Sun Valley ski resort, the city of Ketchum and Idaho’s largest coronavirus epidemic. Many celebrities have second homes in the area. Skiing is renowned for being among the best in the country, and it is a destination of choice on the conference circuit.

But the same factors that helped the region prosper also made it vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“We were doing so well, with a lot of tourism,” said Scott Mason, owner of three restaurants in Ketchum. “But that’s why we are so badly affected now.”

The area is particularly popular with tourists from Seattle, with direct flights to the small regional airport. Health experts say visitors to the region where the first coronavirus outbreak occurred in the country likely brought it to Idaho at the start of the pandemic, before states and municipalities across the country began implementing extreme restrictions to slow the spread.

Russell, the doctor, said he believed he had contracted the virus before there were confirmed cases in Idaho. An avid skier, he said that seemingly innocuous conversations with visitors may have been the culprit.

“People think skiing is a low risk activity,” he said. “But you’re on a chairlift two-thirds of the time, and you turn to people to talk to them.”

Blaine County achieved its first two positive results on March 14.

Sun Valley – the main ski resort in the region – announced the next day which it closed for the season, weeks earlier than expected. The next day, the mayor of Ketchum, Neil Bradshaw, did something he never thought he would do: he wrote an open letter telling tourists to stay away.

“For a city accustomed to welcoming visitors, it is difficult to do”, he recognized in his article Idaho Mountain Express. “But we have to reduce the number of people visiting our region. … The message is clear: this is not a place for a vacation against the virus. “

The city immediately began to disappear. Emptied hotels. Closed restaurants.

“Normally, we would be animated,” said Bradshaw in an interview. “It’s really a ghost town right now.”

But it was too late. In Blaine County’s only hospital, the 25-bed St. Luke Wood River Medical Center, the virus had struck staff hard. Two emergency physicians, including Russell, tested positive. Two others were reportedly exposed and were under quarantine.

In the absence of sufficient staff to operate the hospital at full capacity, the administrators decided to transfer patients to other establishments and to suspend services to hospital patients.

Because neighboring areas of Idaho are not yet relatively affected, this is a strategy that works – for now.

“If the rest of the state were hit as hard as we are, we would be in a real disaster here. It would be like Italy, ”said Russell.

Even with these additional resources, the health system is under strain. Bill McLaughlin, the local fire chief, said that about 10 percent of first responders tested positive for covid-19. With patients transported as far as Boise – a five- or six-hour round trip – he had to register and train volunteer ambulance drivers in as little as a day to keep the system running.

All the while, there is a personal toll.

In a city like Ketchum – 2,700 residents – the impact of so many people falling ill at once has been profoundly personal.

“Everyone here knows someone who has fallen ill, or in some cases has died,” said McLaughlin.

“It’s not six degrees of separation,” said Bradshaw. “It’s a degree.”

There is also the impact on livelihoods. Tourists may have brought the coronavirus to the area. But without them, the local economy collapses.

Mason, the restaurant owner, was cleaning the kitchen at the Ketchum Grill one recent afternoon, with only the occasional order to take care of it. At this time of year, its three restaurants were normally crowded. But with so little food to serve, it has grown from around 80 employees to just 11.

“The numbers are drastic,” said Mason, who opened his first restaurant in the city 29 years ago. “Right now, we are losing money. We will do what we can, but it cannot last for months and months.”

Authorities say they do not know if the worst of the pandemic has passed or is yet to come. But they say they are encouraged that the community seems to be coming together. The rules of social distancing are respected. People volunteer to help. Tourists, everyone seems convinced, will one day return.

And every evening, at 8 p.m., the region sets its own twist on a global phenomenon of breaking isolation and thanking health workers – not with pots or pans or cheers or a song. But with a howl.

“The whole valley,” said Russell, “lets out a giant wolf roar.”

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