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Twin Falls County is the state leader for new COVID-19 cases
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Twin Falls County is the state leader for new COVID-19 cases

Masks for the community

Ooh La La owner Liyah Babayan takes masks she and her family made to be donated April 6 on Main Avenue in Twin Falls.

TWIN FALLS — With 60 new COVID-19 cases in the last seven days, Twin Falls County is now Idaho’s pandemic hotspot. Thirty nine percent of Idaho’s 154 new cases in the past week have been here.

Gov. Brad Little began a phased reopening of the state May 1. Twin Falls County saw a 34% increase in cases during the first week of May compared to the last week of April and has had 270 cases in total.

It appears that more people are catching COVID-19, the diseases caused by the novel coronavirus, as congestion in stores and public settings grows, Dr. Josh Kern, the vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s Magic Valley, St. Luke’s Jerome and St. Luke’s Wood River, said.

“I definitely think the increase in cases is related to a relaxation of social distancing and an increase in (people being out and about),” Kern said. “Things are more crowded than normal, and that’s really not what we want to do.”

Idaho Transportation Department traffic data shows that for some Magic Valley highways, vehicle trips last week were up 20% or more compared to mid-April. For a handful of monitored roads, traffic has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels for certain days of the week. In some instances, stores and public places are more crowded than they were before the pandemic.

It’s important even as the state reopens for people to diligently continue social distancing, health experts said. Closures are ending, but people can’t get complacent.

“Twin Falls has not peaked yet,” South Central Public Health District spokeswoman Brianna Bodily said. “It wasn’t an opportune time for people to relax.”

Kern said the increase in cases isn’t cause for alarm. St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center is doing fine and has not seen a big surge in cases in its COVID-19 unit. (He also noted that St. Luke’s hospitals and clinics are still seeing low numbers of non-COVID patients, and those decreases are troubling because they suggest people are not seeking the medical treatment they need, even though it is safe to do so.)

The most number of new cases in one day in Twin Falls County was 17 on April 9. But since May 1, the county has had four days with new case tallies in the double digits. While there has been some increased testing for elderly populations, the South Central Public Health District said there has generally not been an increase in testing in the past two weeks.

Not only has Twin Falls County been responsible for nearly 40% of Idaho’s new cases in the past week, the county also experienced its seven-day peak — 67 cases — from May 4 through May 10. Before May, the county’s seven-day high had been 47 cases.

The state of Idaho hit its seven-day peak between March 29 and April 4 with 812 new cases. Since May 1 the state hasn’t seen more than 189 new cases in a day.

Magic Valley residents appear to be getting outside much more in May than they did in April. Some city parks have been crowded on weekends and hundreds of people have been flocking to the South Hills and other recreation sites. Home improvement stores have been experiencing massive crowds.

Both Bodily and Kern noted that there appears to be a bit too much nonchalance in terms of social distancing in Twin Falls.

“I don’t know that people are wearing masks or handwashing as well as they could be,” Kern said. “When I’ve been out in Twin Falls, I was the only one wearing a mask.”

If two individuals are wearing masks, it’s unlikely one of them will spread COVID-19 to the other, Kern explained. He added that wearing a mask is more about protecting others than yourself.

If you wear a mask you’ll reduce the number of aerosol particles that you release into the air when you breathe or talk — if you’re sick and don’t know it, a mask could mean the difference between not spreading the disease at all and giving it to a handful of strangers.

Twin Falls is the retail hub for the Magic Valley and even parts of northern Nevada. Tens of thousands of people shop here. Being a retail hub, where large numbers of people shop in relatively close quarters, it can be especially important for people to vigilantly maintain social distancing and proper pandemic etiquette.

Bodily said it’s critical for residents to guard their personal health. And when in public settings, wear masks to protect grocery store workers, the immunocompromised and the elderly. If people aren’t careful, Twin Falls could continue to see even more cases while the rest of the state sees progressively fewer.

“We could end up with a surge in cases that could lead to more restrictions,” she said.

It’s important to make decisions that limit your risk of exposure to COVID-19, Bodily said. People need to help limit the spread by making responsible choices.

“If you want to go to a home improvement store, and it’s full right up to the rafters, go home, try again another time,” Bodily said. “Don’t put yourself at risk so you can get yourself a box of screws.”

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