Shoppers wear masks at the locak grocery store in Driggs, Idaho

Shoppers wear masks as they emerge from Broulim’s in Driggs on Nov. 16.

Last week Teton County saw a dramatic uptick in new COVID cases, causing Eastern Idaho Public Health to elevate the county to the highest risk level, critical, on Nov. 10 after the active case rate had risen above 45 per 10,000 people for three consecutive days. That Tuesday the county also hit its one-day record of 24 new positive cases.

"If you are attending or hosting a gathering locally, please follow the CDC recommendations for the sake of your family and friends’ health, and the community at large. We need to reduce community transmission of COVID-19 now," wrote Teton County in its most recent update on Nov. 20

The critical risk rating prompted the Teton School District 401 to transition to fully remote learning on Nov. 16. During its Nov. 9 meeting, the school board had empowered the superintendent and administrative team to follow the district reopening plan and make the call to go to remote learning without further guidance from the board. Schools will continue with remote learning until at least after the Thanksgiving break.

“It’s up to the community to bring the numbers down,” district public information officer Jeanne Anderson said. “If people want the schools to return to in-person learning then we have to have community cooperation.”

The district is still maintaining a weekly dashboard of cases on its website at tsd401.org. The dashboard breaks down cases and exposures by school and shows those affecting students and those affecting staff. Anderson explained that although students won’t be contracting COVID at school for the next two weeks, it’s still valuable for the district to collect that information for when in-person learning resumes.

EIPH will reevaluate the county’s risk level after 14 days, as long as case numbers stay below the critical threshold. The health department is still contact tracing after positive cases, but EIPH public information officer Mimi Taylor said that can be challenging with so many new cases each day, especially when those cases have come in contact with many others. People can help with case investigations by answering their phone when EIPH calls, or returning their messages, and being forthcoming with information.

“If we do not have certain information, we cannot do our jobs,” Taylor said. “We also encourage that once someone knows they are positive with COVID-19, to start making the calls themselves to people they have recently been around as the word will get out quicker that way so people can start their quarantine sooner than later.”

On Nov. 13, Governor Brad Little moved the state back to Stage 2, but did not issue a statewide mask mandate. Masks are required in Teton County, according to county and city ordinances and the public health order from EIPH. The governor did prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people, but religious and political gatherings are exempt.

Keith Gnagey, the CEO of Teton Valley Health, said the county’s positivity rate has improved slightly; it had risen to 25 percent in early November, meaning one in every four people being tested had the virus, but dropped last week to 16 percent. Between Nov. 8 and 14 the hospital broke its testing record by performing 333 tests, and a record 286 people had conversations with nurses via the COVID hotline last week. People calling the hotline are mostly asking about their symptoms or seeking information on how to be tested, Gnagey said.

While TVH is not responsible for contact tracing, health care providers are able to do some informal contact tracing when people test positive and discuss their possible exposures. That information is then shared with EIPH.

“As more and more people in the community have it, it’s harder to say where you got it from,” Gnagey said. “Some identify the workplace, or small gatherings, but it’s hard to know. Nothing against friends and family, but they can be sick too.”

On the positive side, it seems that at-risk individuals in the community are taking steps to protect themselves, he added. The average age of people being tested has declined even as the number of tests given has increased.

Gnagey stressed the same message that has been promoted since near the beginning of the pandemic: practice social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand washing, and stay home when sick. “Don’t let your guard down,” he said. “I think people are relaxing, but we need to keep following the simple rules.”