PLAINS — There's growing concerns over the rapid spike in COVID-19 cases in Sanders County, and calls for people to take steps to manage their own personal risk, and protect others.
Health Officer Dr. Nick Lawyer says the number of cases at Clark Fork Valley Hospital is triple the 7-day average of patients during the pandemic last winter. And the daily reports of positive cases have also eclipsed the numbers from December.
That's forced local schools to go remote in the past week as staff, and students, either have the virus, or are close contacts. He doesn't see any single reason for the spike, and we asked him whether the explosion of cases in North Idaho could be partly to blame.
"That's a great question. I don't think we've seen clear data to suggest that Idaho's increased case volume is overflowing into our area," Lawyer answered when we talked with him on Thursday. "I'm not aware of any large number of Idaho patients or Washington patients seeking care here."
Still Lawyer says the Idaho situation is heartbreaking and he's worried it might indicate where Montana is headed if more people don't take what he calls "personal responsibility. Vaccinations, masks, social distancing and limiting exposure. He says nobody can "dictate those choices".
Dr. Lawyer recognizes that Montanas like to be independent. But he says this is a time to do your risk assessment and keep your neighbors safe.
"Sanders County and Montana in general, people are ruggedly independent. And they definitely don't like people telling them what to do," Lawyer admits. "I think my hope is that people can see what's happening in North Idaho and we have the advantage of seeing that, and seeing that trajectory here. And if we make a few simple interventions we can really, hopefully slow things down now and not have the same suffering that they've had."
Lawyer says none of the precautions like vaccines are perfect but powerful when used together.
"It, like a layer of Swiss cheese, works really well, but has a few holes in it. Maskings the same way. Masking's not perfect. But it does help reduce disease transmission, by 10-to-30%," Lawyer explained. "So each individual layer is imperfect. But when you add the layers on top of each other the holes will be covered up."
Since he's been on the pandemic front lines for 18-month now, I asked Lawyer whether he's afraid for this fall and winter.
"You know Dennis, I was born here. I was actually born in this hospital. My mom worked in surgery here," Lawyer remembers with pride. "This is my community and I appreciate that people are frustrated with the continued presence of this virus in our lives. And I wish he had a silver bullet to make it go away. I don't think it's going to go away."
"It's just a matter of taking personal responsibility to make those choices. To be responsible for your own, to control your own. To know what you're doing. And it has implications for other people."
If you live in Sanders County and would like to be checked for COVID-19, Clark Fork Valley Hospital has set up a drive-through for testing.