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Teton County’s COVID-19 numbers spike; area schools move to hybrid learning

Coronavirus

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Cars line up at Teton Valley Hospital Tuesday evening for one of five COVID drive through testing slots. Teton County, Idaho is on the cusp of moving to a Critical Level designation of infection. | Courtesy photo

DRIGGS — A spike in COVID-19 cases in Teton County has moved the county dangerously close to the critical risk level and is impacting how kids will attend school.

The county has been at the high-risk level of Eastern Idaho Public Health’s Regional Response Plan since Friday and could move to the highest risk level by the middle of this week if the spike doesn’t slow down.

Area medical facilities are already seeing the impacts of the spike.

Teton Valley Hospital CEO Keith Gnagey tells Eastidahonews.com the largest medical facility in the valley, Teton Valley Hospital, is experiencing “astronomical” call volumes to its COVID-19 hotline.

“We are asking people to do what we have always asked of them and to please help blunt this curve,” he says.

Teton County issued a Public Health Advisory Notice early Monday morning warning the community that if precautions weren’t taken to flatten the rise of cases, regional medical facilities could fall short to meet the public’s needs and state and local officials could take additional action to manage the public’s health.

These calls to the hotline coincide with the reported positivity rate at the local hospital. One in four or 25% of those tested at Teton Valley Hospital tested positive for COVID-19 last week; that’s up from 14% the week before. By Sunday, Teton County’s case rate had already exceeded the critical threshold, reaching 48.6 cases per 10,000 people. If the rate stays above 45 for two days, Teton will move to the critical risk level.

That could place Teton in the same category as Lemhi County, which moved to the critical risk level last Thursday. Teton County, Idaho’s numbers are also keeping pace with Teton County, Wyoming which is intimately tied to the valley’s workforce. The Jackson Hole News and Guide is reporting increased positivity rates just over Teton Pass with 128 active cases as of last week.

Gnagey says he understands the public is growing tired of COVID precautions, and that they are seeing increases in intimate dinner parties, kids’ birthday and sleepover parties and carpooling, which is contributing to the rise in cases.

According to a news release issued by the county on Monday, EIPH reported 69 new confirmed and probable cases for Teton between Monday, Nov. 2 and Nov. 8. The three highest daily case counts since the pandemic began (17, 16 and 16) were all reported in the last seven days.

To date, Teton County has had two deaths from COVID while the state is just shy of 700 as of Tuesday. According to Eastidahonews.com, more than 15,000 people have recovered from COVID-19 in eastern Idaho, and more than 31,000 have recovered statewide.

School board goes to hybrid learning model

After some debate, about whether the school district should move entirely online, Teton School Board members agreed to stick with its original reopening plan and move the public schools to a hybrid model starting Wednesday.

The plan allows students to attend school in person one day and be online at home the next day. Students with last names starting with A to K will attend in-person on Wednesday and online Thursday. Students with last names starting with L to Z will work online Wednesday and attend in-person on Thursday. On Friday, all students will be directed by teachers on work that needs to be completed.

But, if Teton County does go to the critical risk level, the board may change things and go to a completely online model, according to a district news release.

During Monday’s board meeting, trustee Shannon Brooks-Hamby encouraged the board to be proactive. She said the district should go all-online immediately and stay online until after the Thanksgiving break at the end of the month. She argued that the district was only a few COVID cases away from moving to a virtual school setting and the board was “splitting hairs with the risk to students, families and the community.”

“We are a big lever in the community for managing the risk and the spread,” she said at the board meeting. “I’m discouraged that we are not more flexible to help manage the numbers.”

School board members Jake Kunz and Alexie Hulme agreed that moving to hybrid and considering virtual learning by the weekend was the best course of action. Hulme argued that 60% of the public favored in-person schooling in an August survey.

School Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme pushed back. “We are trying to get a hold of a pandemic,” he responded to Hulme’s comment. “I don’t like this conversation either, but the numbers will eat us alive and we could lose the rest of the school year,” he said.

For more COVID-19 news, click here.

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