The People In Idaho’s Coronavirus Epicenter Have A Message For The Rest Of Us

Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/coronavirus-covid-19-idaho-blaine-county-sun-valley

The rural area around Sun Valley, Idaho, became one of the earliest hot spots of COVID-19 cases in the US. Now, its residents can teach us something about what’s next.

Posted on April 11, 2020, at 10:36 a.m. ET

The journalists at BuzzFeed News are proud to bring you trustworthy and relevant reporting about the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member and sign up for our newsletter, Outbreak Today.


Jennifer Liebrum told me toer any time: “I’ve got nothing else to do,” she said, “but lay in this room.” She’d been in that room, fully isolated from the rest of her family, for nearly three weeks — ever since she started feeling sick, assumed it was the coronavirus, and knew if she didn’t immediately quarantine herself, she’d risk infecting her 16-year-old daughter, who’d only recently entered remission after two years of treatment for leukemia.

Like a lot of people in Blaine County — made up of 2,661 square miles of mountains and wilderness, smack in the center of the bottom half of Idaho — Liebrum wears, as she puts it, “a lot of hats.” Since moving to the Wood River Valley in 2001, she’s worked as an equine therapist, a ranch manager, and a waiter. Now she’s a writer, works at the middle school, and takes on the odd gig to supplement her family’s income. That’s what she did on March 7, when she did “advance work” for a wedding at River Run Lodge at Sun Valley, the ski resort that serves as an economic center of gravity for the area.

A significant number of people in the wedding party were from Seattle, including two health care workers. At that point, people were still thinking of COVID-19 as something mostly isolated to a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, and a handful of other cases (Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had yet to even ban meetings of 250 or more). So when the first official positive test results for COVID-19 came back in Blaine County, on March 14, there was an immediate impulse to try to figure out where it came from: Was it the Seattle wedding? The rollicking closing party for the National Brotherhood of Skiers, held the night before with music from DJ Jazzy Jeff?

Debbie Bacca had attended the party and worked at the wedding. She started feeling sick a few days later and made an appointment at the local hospital, where coronavirus testing kits had just become available. Her results came back on Saturday, a week after the wedding: She was one of the first two official cases in Blaine County. But as was the case in Seattle and many other places around the US, chances are high that the virus had already been in the area for some time. The closing party and the wedding just served as vectors for its spread. As Bacca put it, “That lodge was a petri dish.”

By March 19, five days later, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 16, and shortly after, the county issued a stay-at-home order. The hospital, which has just two ICU beds and one ventilator, was forced to temporarily close, as four of the seven emergency room doctors were quarantined after being exposed to the virus. Two of them tested positive. Tourists almost certainly brought the virus to the county, where more than 40% of houses are short-term rentals and second homes. But it’s full-time residents who are figuring out how to deal with the aftermath.

Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

A warning to backcountry users on Highway 75, north of Ketchum, Idaho.

By April 11, there were 452 confirmed cases in Blaine County, and five people had died. The area has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the US — higher, even, than New York City’s — and the fifth-highest deaths per capita. But nearly a month since the stay-at-home order was issued, the number of new cases has actually begun to decline. And the high number of cases relative to the county’s population (23,000) is largely indicative of widespread testing that hasn’t been feasible for many cities.

For weeks in Idaho, like so many other places, you couldn’t get a test, regardless of your symptoms, unless you knew you’d been in direct contact with someone who had COVID-19. But in a small community like Blaine County, when just a handful of people tested positive, dozens more who were exhibiting symptoms were able to get tested as well. And the widespread (official) infection rate has a silver lining: Earlier this week, the city of Ketchum and the county announced an official collaboration with the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to launch an antibody testing program.

In truth, Blaine County isn’t that different from any other community with an outbreak of COVID-19. The virus just hit it earlier than most, and with less warning. And as has been the case in every other place, systemic issues, from the lack of affordable housing to the digital divide, have emerged in even starker relief than before.

The stereotype of Sun Valley, in and outside of Idaho, is a town dominated by a bunch of rich, white, out-of-state skiers with second homes. But Blaine County is far more than Sun Valley (one of four “major” small towns in the area), and the lived reality of its full-time residents tells a story that will sound familiar to people living in far more dense urban areas. Idaho, as a whole, is 93% white. Yet 48% of school-age children in the Blaine County school district, according to the school board chair, are Latino. Almost half of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The county seat of Hailey, population 8,282, ranked ninth in the nation for most severe income inequality in a 2018 study from the Economic Policy Institute.

In 2017, only 57.5% of housing units across the county were occupied by full-time residents; the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Hailey was $1,200 a month. Meanwhile, wages — when adjusted for inflation — have fallen about 15% over the last decade. Food costs across the area are the eighth-highest in the nation. Before the pandemic, the local food bank, the Hunger Coalition, reported serving nearly 4,000 people a year in the community — about a fifth of the county’s population.

All of the problems facing Blaine County before COVID-19 are still there, but are now exacerbated by the crisis. The Hunger Coalition is now serving nearly triple their normal weekly numbers, with more people in need every week. Thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the tourist economy, which has ground to a halt, are struggling to make ends meet. The school district is scrambling to figure out how to continue educating in a way that’s fair and equitable when at least a quarter of their students don’t have high-speed internet at home, either because of cost or remote location.

Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Molly Page (left) works at the kitchen table while her daughter Lilia (center) sews face masks.

Even with all of those problems, Blaine County is still a tight-knit community. In the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, that meant a fair amount of gossip about where the virus had come from, and who was spreading it. When Bacca first started telling people about her diagnosis, she told me, “The news spread like wildfire. I felt like Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter.” Molly Page, who runs the local Facebook page for COVID-19 support, told me people across the state are “furious with 5Bers” (the license plate abbreviation for Blaine County). “There’s this anger about us being here, just generally,” she said. “But we locked down the county. We didn’t start the pandemic. We were just the first in Idaho to really get it all over.”

The county is still under a mandatory stay-at-home order, as is the state, and plans to remain so for the foreseeable future. But this past Sunday, Liebrum was finally able to come out from her room and rejoin her family. Others are slowly starting to do the same. Blaine County is sending us a letter from our near future about what the asteroid impact of the coronavirus is like when it hits a small community, and what life might look like in its wake. Here are the stories of 14 people who live there — stories that, soon enough, might sound a lot like yours.

Interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Cathy Swink, 48, Pharmacist at Valley Apothecary in Ketchum, Idaho

Every year, people get what’s called the “Ketchum Kroup.” Kroup with a K. It’s just the name people use to describe getting sick when the tourists start coming around Christmas. This year, I don’t feel like it was any more than any other year. The actual influenza didn’t hit that hard — so from our standpoint, in the pharmacy, it felt milder. There was never a moment where it was like, oh my god, something’s here.

This past week, my phone has been blowing up. Everyone I know who got tested weeks ago is coming back positive. There are definitely some false negatives too, people with the same exact symptoms as people who tested positive. We’re already peaking. But my advice to everyone else in small towns is that you can’t wait until it gets there. At that point, it’s out of control, and you’re behind the eight ball. You have to have an action plan right now.

“You can’t wait until it gets there. At that point, it’s out of control, and you’re behind the eight ball. You have to have an action plan right now.”

I had been closely following what was happening in China. I’ve been a pharmacist for 20 years, and I’d never seen anything like this. I knew it was going to come here and that it was going to be bad. Starting in January, we overstocked on everything, from thermometers and gloves to hand sanitizer. And when we saw that hand sanitizer was going to run out, we ordered the stuff to make it ourselves.

We had a meeting the week before the first positives came back. We came up with our game plan — and the Saturday when the first case came back, we closed our doors and went curbside-only. Emailed our mayor and within a day they had six “temporary parking only” signs out front of our business for people coming to pick up. On Tuesday, we hired a bartender from the local bar and started free delivery all over the valley. Our patients are in sync with it, and it’s working very smoothly.

People from the outside are still coming in. They’re out there, sledding, not self-quarantining. This is usually when we get our town back — when the tourists leave. But I had a friend going into the local grocery store, and she said, ‘Look around — do you recognize anyone here?’ Not a soul. The amount of prescriptions we’re getting from out of state, it’s ridiculous — New York, California, Washington, New York, California, Washington. That’s really going to be our problem if we don’t get an antibody test — people are just going to keep coming in and reinfecting.


Nick Price

Kelsie Choma

Kelsie Choma, 29, Police Dispatcher in Hailey, Idaho

My husband and I met when he was a state trooper, and I moved from Boise to be with him here. I have two stepkids and a baby. Back in January, February, everyone seemed kind of oblivious. I mean, we’re in the middle of nowhere, Idaho — why would this disease come there? I wasn’t thinking about the tourist aspect; those people normally just keep to themselves.

We’re still working. I’m essential. My husband is essential. It’s a blessing and a curse. I used to have normal hours from Monday to Friday, 9–5, and would cover overtime. But now we’re working 12-hour shifts. We’re attached to the sheriff’s office, but we can’t leave our little space. There’s no one else allowed in. No one’s gotten sick. That’s a big miracle.

We have two busy seasons in town: summer and winter. The mountain was supposed to still be open at this point. But I’m not even worried about the tourists coming back. I’m worried about the locals who can’t keep up. We have a small-town feel here, you know, because we are a small town. And I know the restaurant owners. I know they’re having to shut their doors. How could they have protected themselves or prepared for something like this?

The stimulus check from the government — I mean, realistically, up here, that’s not even going to cover our mortgage, which is $1,300-something a month. We can make that work because there’s two of us still working, but other people we know are paying $1,700 or more. There are those people with second houses up here, but my husband and I can’t afford to go skiing on the mountain.

People love to come to our county, and now they’re terrified too. But our community, in times like this, we all come together and try to make things work. We all live in this wonderful place where we all get to go hiking and some of us can go skiing. We just want the best for each other.


R. Keith Roark, 71, Chair of the Blaine County School Board

I tell people I’m from Hailey, Idaho. I don’t use the word “Sun Valley.” I was elected chair of the school board this past year, and I’m also a lawyer, and was previously the mayor of Hailey. When the first round of COVID-19 cases came out, there was a connection to the school district, and we closed the schools as soon as we could.

Right now, we’re still trying to plan and implement the so-called distance learning plan. The difficulty is that 25% of our students do not have access to high-speed internet. And to be pursuant with state and federal law, we have to provide a quality, equal education for all our students, so we cannot ignore those who don’t have access. We’re trying to increase high-speed internet accessibility, but we’re fighting a losing battle. We were trying to help some families add internet to their cable bill, but a lot of people are already cutting expenses — including their cable access.

It’s like trying to bail out a lifeboat that has a hole in the bottom. But this is a school district that has prided itself on quality education. We have a dedicated and well-educated teaching staff. And some of them — not a huge number, but some — don’t have access to high-speed internet either. They live in areas that have satellite, and that just doesn’t work with the sort of teleconferencing that we’re using.

“It’s like trying to bail out a lifeboat that has a hole in the bottom.”

Our district is 48% Hispanic. Many live in households where their parents might not speak English at all. We have a full-time interpreter, and all communications that go out from the district are translated into Spanish. But the easiest way to handle communication is through email — and again, we’re in a situation where 25% of homes do not have access to the internet. So we’re doing a lot of texting. Before the pandemic, almost half of our students were on free or reduced-price lunch. Since we closed down the schools, we are providing lunches to all students, whether they were in those programs or not.

Right now, all our issues as a district have been put on the back burner. Depending on how badly the resulting recession hits this area, people are probably not going to be able to pay their property taxes, and that means we’re not going to be able to think about pay increases for our employees. We’ll also be absorbing what looks to be a significant increase in insurance premiums.

I’m not circulating around the community. I’m handling things from home. And I’ve been thinking about a whole lot more than I want to talk about right now.


Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Jamie’s parents Nancy (left) and Jim Rivetts (right), who both have COVID-19.

Jaime Rivetts, 42, Social Learning Specialist in Bellevue, Idaho

My parents are in their seventies, and last year they went on a big trip for their 50th wedding anniversary. My dad got pneumonia when he got back and had to be intubated and life-flighted out of the area. He’s a super-active guy, but he’s been on oxygen ever since. My mom has type 2 diabetes. So when the virus started coming around, I was paying attention — ever since Christmas, especially since my dad has a bit of the cowboy attitude and kept skiing and doing everything all through January.

On March 17, they got it — probably while grocery shopping in those few days before. My dad had a progressively harder time breathing, and he kept upping his oxygen, and then he just realized he couldn’t manage it. On March 20, he drove himself to the ER. They were shutting down the hospital there, so they took him in an ambulance down to Twin. [Editor’s note: Twin Falls, the nearest metropolitan area, is about a 90-minute drive from Blaine County.]

They tested him and got rushed results. The infectious disease doc came in and said, “You have COVID, and I don’t think you’re going to survive, because you only have 61% of your lung capacity.” They asked him, “Do you still want to have this DNR [do-not-resuscitate order]?” He said yes. “Do you want to be put on a ventilator if needed?” He said yes.

I talked to him on the phone on Friday and Saturday, and I thought those conversations might be the last ones I’d ever have with him. We took my mom to the ER on Saturday, and they tested her, did a chest X-ray and sent her home with antibiotics. But she was home all by herself while my dad was in the ICU. I made food and put it on the doorstep. I made sure she answered texts and phone calls every few hours. But she got worse, and that Wednesday, my brother and sister-in-law — who live next door to her — took her to get IV fluids. Now my brother and sister-in-law have it.

Meanwhile, my dad was gradually improving. He said it was so hard to be alone, with the only people he came into contact with wearing full protective gear. He said it felt like they were scared of him. But he’s a tough cookie. He couldn’t get out of bed or go to the bathroom for nine days, but when they let him out, he took a shower, and came home — that was March 29 — and surprised everyone on the family Zoom call. It was my parents’ 51st anniversary. My mom was just totally taken aback and so happy.

That was one of the hardest weeks of my life. My worst nightmare when I started thinking about this virus, back in January, came true. One of my kids turns 4 on April 24. We’re just hopeful we can all be together.


Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Herbert Romero

Herbert Romero, 46, Community Organizer in Hailey, Idaho

In 2016, I moved to this beautiful paradise. It’s quiet here, and tranquil. But it’s diverse too — even within the Hispanic community. Americanized, people from Mexico, from Central America, from South America. There’s a lot of opportunity here. But there’s challenges too. Like in every community, there are people who are disenfranchised, who are disengaged and disconnected. There are so many resources here, but there has been a gap between those providing and those in need.

The reality here is that skiing, hiking, river rafting, all that incredible stuff — there’s a big percentage of people for whom that’s not reachable. Of course you can go to the mountains any time of day, but people don’t understand that. They think if they go to the hiking trails, maybe they’ll get policed. It was like this in California, where I’m from, too: People see the mountains; they know they’re right there, and they don’t go.

With COVID-19, the big problem in my community is that dealing with the system is a challenge. Monolingual people in my community don’t understand English. There’s a disconnect, and information just has not reached them. I helped with an article in our local newspaper, and the headline was straight to the point: “Hispanic community in ‘crisis’ over COVID-19.” And that’s the truth. There are mixed messages out there — from the national media, the local media, and then you have the rumor aspect of it.

But there’s also people out there working to counteract those rumors. The city and county are being really proactive in getting out information in Spanish. And they’re reaching out to us, asking, “What do we need to do?” We’ve been doing interviews on the Spanish-language radio station. And that’s been helpful in pushing against the fear and the rumors.

“People are going to get to the reality: I still cannot go back to work. But we’re organizing and mobilizing.”

But, you know, not everyone has the luxury to quarantine in a separate room. That’s a real concern for the Hispanic community here. And it’s hard to capture what it means for us, to quarantine your mom, your grandma, your dad, in that way. When trouble like this happens in our community, you come together, you unify your family — but you’re telling the family to separate. Go in that room. And that’s really hard. And what about the other family members? They can’t just leave. They’re scared of this unknown. I have some families who believe that if they come out the door, the virus is there in the air. The public health officials and the CDC need to educate more, get out more information.

In March, people maybe had some savings to cover their rent. People got paid. But this month, April? It’s going to be intense. It’s going to shake us. The need is going to be triple. People are going to get to the reality: I still cannot go back to work. But we’re organizing and mobilizing. We’re starting a leadership task force in our community and having our first meeting this week.

And that’s the thing I want people to know. We are out there, boots on the ground. We’re passing out care packages to families. We’re working to support the school district. We’re taking the initiative to support the Hispanic community and the community at large. Right now, Hispanics are not just receiving or needing resources. We are a resource.


Brent Russell, 50, Emergency Room Physician at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center

You think that skiing is low-risk for the virus because you’re outdoors. But you spend three-fourths of your time on a chairlift, turning to talk to the person next to you, or in a closed gondola. The only thing worse than skiing is, like, being on a subway — or a big ol’ Mardi Gras party. And we had that, too, with the Brotherhood — they throw these incredible events that everyone wants to go to, and they’re nice enough to open them to the general public. All these things, like weddings, that were beautiful things for people to attend — now we have to think of them in this different way.

Then it all just exploded that next week. That’s when I started getting symptoms. I was the sickest I’ve ever been. I’m writing an article right now for the local newspaper that talks about mental health and how everyone’s scared and wants to blame other people. How we don’t become our best selves when we’re scared.

But we were so lucky. We don’t have a robust intensive care unit — so from the start, we were keeping the patients who didn’t need intensive care but sending everyone else to Boise or Twin. If it was cloudy, like it is a lot this time of year, we wouldn’t have been able to fly them — which would’ve meant three hours on snowy roads if they were headed for Boise after Twin filled up. What’s saved us here, too, is that we’re 20,000 people in a state of 2 million, and because the state hadn’t been hit as hard, we had the resources of the entire state at our disposal. Doctors coming in, patients going out. Where I’m from, in the South, all the communities are packed together. Each one spills into the next. If it hits a small town there, it’ll hit the entire state. But here, we’re so isolated — it probably came here by plane, and it has largely stayed here.

The number of new cases is going down right now. But the rate of hospitalized people will go up as people who tested positive get sicker. I’m hopeful about the antibody testing — there’s the one that’s been announced and another project that hasn’t been officially announced yet. The ideal thing would be to test our entire county — because until we know what our rate of infection is and can find those asymptomatic people shedding the disease early in the infection, we’re operating in the dark. If you were going to pick a small town to study, this would be the best one. I feel like we’re in a movie — that’s what I’ve told everyone. It’s so weird to be at the epicenter of all of this.


Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Jennifer Liebrum looks through the front door of her house in Bellevue, Idaho.

Jennifer Liebrum, 54, Special Education Teacher and Freelance Writer in Bellevue, Idaho

I knew our valley was in Chicken Little mode. Because my daughter’s immunocompromised after all the chemo, we’ve been out banging the drum about vaccines. Our valley can be a self-centered place. You can make a friend if you’re out and doing sports, but they don’t know you; they just know that you like to do this activity. You only find out years later that they’re either super loaded, and that’s why they’re always available, or they’re socially weird and couldn’t make friends elsewhere. But of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful people here, too.

Isolation isn’t new to me or my family, because we’ve been trying to protect my daughter while she was going through chemo. She got a bone marrow transplant from my husband, and now she has an immune system like a brand-new baby. So when I started getting sick, I went straight to our bedroom, and I’ve been here for 20 days. I know my girls are scared on the other side of the door. It’s worse because right when this started, their beloved horse, who’s almost 30 years old, had to be put down. I felt like my arms were cut off, because they were just standing there bawling and I couldn’t do a damn thing.

“I had what I would consider a mild case, but I really expected that by the end I was going to spew something out of my body with a head.”

My husband was still working, because he’s a farrier, but he also works as a firefighter at the airport — they always have to have someone there, just because. When I went and got the test and tested positive, I was like, you’re grounded, dude. Welcome to my world. I keep thinking back to when I got that test result back. I document everything. I take pictures of dog farts. But I could not bring myself to take a picture at that moment. I was just too sad. Too incredibly sad.

Luckily, I could retrace my steps pretty easily. Because of my daughter, we just don’t really run amok. I had what I would consider a mild case, but I really expected that by the end I was going to spew something out of my body with a head. It just knocks every organ in your body. I feel like it goes around wondering what it can mess with now.

We assume everyone’s reading the internet and knows what’s going on, but they’re not. My family’s out in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. My family only really gets it now because I’m sick. That’s how it’s going to spread — the awareness and the disease — is when someone you know gets sick. And then it’s gonna snap their heads up. And they’re going to be beyond terrified because they’re not prepared. Rural people think they’re okay with isolating, that they can handle it. That’s true. But what they can’t handle is what’s going to happen when they’re shipped to these overwhelmed urban hospitals.

Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Santos Serva, owner of Hailey Coffee in Hailey, Idaho, is doing to-go orders.

Santos Serva, 36, Owner of Hailey Coffee Company

I love this place so much. It’s filled with kind people. I worked for the coffee shop for several years, and I’ve owned it for four. We’ve got the roaster running; we are selling wholesale and still offering curbside coffee and some breakfast items — but mostly people are coming through for their lattes. We had to close down our store in Ketchum, though, and we only have two people working.

My staff — I want to help them. I worry about them. I’m always calling them and texting them and seeing how they’re doing. Seeing if I can help if I can with what I can. You know, everything’s changed. Everything I planned, it’s changed. But the thing we have to keep is hope, and thinking day to day. These past few days it’s felt better. And the sun, it’s really, really helped.


Caleb Morgan, 20, College Student

I was born and raised in Hailey, but I’ve been at Montana State University in the documentary film program. I’m just finishing up my junior year. I had plans to go to New York for spring break before all this went down. But then they announced we’d be going to all online classes, and I thought, Well, I better get home.

All my friends are back home too, so it’s like being back in high school — only we’re not allowed to see anyone. The other day, I was sitting in my room, just quarantining, and I heard this blood-piercing scream. There was this lady, just howling. Then I realized everyone else was doing it, too. They’re doing it every night at 8 p.m. for all the essential workers.

Now I’m filming the howl every night. When I first heard it, I thought it was funny. But now it’s different: I’m out in the back of my truck, and it feels like I’m really witnessing it. It brings people together, even though they physically can’t be. It’s just a presence, you know, like, everyone out there hoping the best for everyone else.


Maritt Wolfrom, 47, Social Studies Teacher at Wood River High School

The week before our schools shut down, there was a lot of anxiety. A bunch of my colleagues had been sick, but that was before anyone thought it could be here. When we had parent–teacher conferences, we were social-distancing with other teachers in the hallway. A teacher down the hall got really sick, and I was in contact with him. I was laid out for more than a week, couldn’t get out of bed, walking 10 feet across the room and wheezing and coughing, with severe tightness in my chest. I’m asthmatic, and I’ve never felt anything like it. I got my test back yesterday, and it was negative, but literally the second line of the email about the test results is that the test is not perfect.

“I’m worried about teacher burnout. None of us were trained for this.”

For school, we all have one class of kids, an advisory, who are ours for four years. We’re all making personal contact with those kids through Google phone calls. I’ve been working with teachers and students on how to get it set up, but if they don’t have access at home, I can’t do anything. This is really an equity issue.

I’m worried about my second-language learners. If these kids are highly proficient in reading, then they’ll be okay. But kids can be really proficient in speaking or listening and not in reading — and they’re going to struggle without face-to-face classes. I’m worried about my kids on 504 medical action plans, and on IEPs (individualized education programs). By federal law, we still need to accommodate all these students. But this is just unprecedented. It’s flying-the-airplane-while-we-build-it kind of stuff.

And I’m worried about teacher burnout. None of us were trained for this. Some teachers are so great in the classroom, face to face, but they don’t have the tech savviness. I hope they can be patient with themselves. A friend of mine on social media was like, “I can’t believe the district hasn’t planned for this. But how could we have planned for this?”


Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Brooke Irby and her 1-year-old daughter, Maisie. Brooke works for the Hotel Ketchum, which closed due to COVID-19.

Brooke Irby, 26, Hotel Concierge in Ketchum, Idaho

I didn’t even get to help close up the hotel where I work — because my daughter, who’s a year old, had a cough, and I realized my mom’s friend had been over the night before, and she’d been at the wedding and tested positive. She’d hugged my sister, my mom, my daughter, my nephew. The next day, I had a 103-degree fever. I couldn’t breathe at night; I’d just have to sit up.

Applying for unemployment has been really, really hard. There’s all this red tape. They say someone will call you, and no one calls you. One of my friends showed me she had called 300 times before she got an answer. I’m still going to school online, but my financial aid doesn’t cover my housing. I have a special training in postpartum depression, and I’ve been talking with clients online — it’s so hard right now. You can’t have family members over, and a lot of new moms have no one to support them.

Those of us who work in the hospitality industry, we’re pretty sure we’ve all had it. But there’s no way to know. The testing is still backed up. Most of us don’t have a way to make it for three months without working. I’m a single mom. I make $13.25 and I have two children. I moved back in with my mom. Right now I’ve probably gone negative in my bank account.


Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Debbie Bacca and her dog take a walk on Dollar Mountain in Sun Valley, Idaho. Debbie was Blaine County’s first official case of COVID-19.

Debbie Bacca, 53, Construction Project Manager in Ketchum, Idaho

Every Friday, I have an afternoon ski session with a good friend. On March 6, we went to the Brotherhood Party. It was just a blast. They always have the best parties, and everyone in town looks forward to it. But at that point, that lodge was a petri dish. I think we gave it to a bunch of them. The next day, I worked the wedding of the people from Seattle.

When I got my positive test back, I told a few of my friends, and we alerted the people who’d been at the wedding. I kept getting text messages from people, people who weren’t in my social or, let’s say, economic group. I was like, leave me alone, because you wouldn’t even say hi to me if you saw me walking down the street.

They had the state press conference, and they aired it on Facebook. People were commenting on the side, and someone was saying, “We need to know if this woman in Blaine County has been around old people.” And another person asked where I lived, and someone else answered with the name of my neighborhood. And I thought, Wait a minute. That’s not fair. It’s not as if I was walking up and down the aisle rubbing the produce.

People wanted to know how someone like me, with relatively mild symptoms, got a test. Well, I was the 5:15 appointment, and they had just gotten the tests in — so, lucky me. I tell people: My cough was scary, and you’ve got to rest. I’m four weeks from my first symptoms, and I had a funky day yesterday. And, again, I had a mild case.

One thing I’m learning through all of this and being home for four weeks is that I’m going to come out of this stronger and with a lot of clarity. I have an amazing peer group, and people came and fed us for two weeks. The owner of the local grocery store did my shopping and dropped it off at my house. I got out, and people have been kind. They’re like, “Hey, you’re the first case, you’re famous!” But that’s not really a title I want to be given.


Nick Price for BuzzFeed News

Mayor Neil Bradshaw crosses the street in Ketchum, Idaho.

Neil Bradshaw, 53, Mayor of Ketchum

There’s no use in finger-pointing about where this came from. We’ve just got to get on with it and manage it the best we can. I’m trying to push kindness over anything else. Tolerance, empathy, patience — that reduces panic and produces a level of calm that’s more important than anything else right now. Some of the decisions we make will be wrong, and some will be right. But every decision will be well intentioned.

What I’m trying to do with the next few months is turn this notoriety into something positive. We’re officially working with two groups on an antibody study. We’re so bad that we’re perfect for it — the perfect sample size for the rest of the country. That’s felt good, because it’s something that we can do. We can try to lead the charge for our county, for our state, and for the nation in finding a solution.

The more we can test ourselves, the more information we can generate, the better decisions we can make about when to open. We’re all always looking for a sense of purpose. And our sense of purpose, as a community, has landed on our lap. The only shame will be if we don’t see what’s on our lap and react to it.


Anonymous, 64, Grocery Store Clerk

I love my customers. I was telling a customer the other day, “I miss the hugs; I miss the kids.” I know all the kids by name. I’m Hispanic and Catholic, and hugs mean so much to me. But you know what? This is a wake-up from nature. This is nature saying, “Take good care of me, and if not, I’ll destroy you.” I see the fear in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they’re still hoarding. I want to say, “You can’t eat toilet paper.”

“I see the fear in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they’re still hoarding. I want to say, ‘You can’t eat toilet paper.’”

I was sitting here two weeks ago on my day off, just listening to the radio. I know the DJ, and he was talking about how he was out of toilet paper, wondering, do they have to go out of state to get it? So I went over there and dropped off some toilet paper. I said, “We’re a community, and we have to take care of each other.”

I’m the frontliner. I’m more exposed than anyone, maybe even more than doctors and nurses. My daughter said, “Dad, you’re 64 years old. You’re at risk.” But I’m not scared to go to work. I put this in God’s hands. And you know what? I’m here to serve. I told her, “They need me. And I need them.” ●

Grizzly bear protecting her cub is shot after biting hiker, Montana officials say

Play Video

Duration 7:48
How to handle bear encounters

Heading out on a hike? An Idaho Fish and Game officials provides tips for identifying black and grizzly bears and what to do when you encounter each. 

A grizzly bear trying to protect her cub attacked a hiker Wednesday, Montana wildlife officials say.

A man came face-to-face with a female grizzly bear and her cub while on a hike, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The grizzly bear attacked and bit the hiker’s thigh.

The hiker then shot and injured the bear with a pistol, officials say. The hiker was able to walk back to his house near Dupuyer and go to a hospital.

“The bear’s behavior indicated it attacked to protect her cub from a perceived threat posed by the hiker,” wildlife officials say.

Local news has never been more important

Subscribe for unlimited digital access to the news that matters to your community.

#READLOCAL

Officials searched for the bear into the night and began again the next morning with a helicopter and ground crews. Officials euthanized the bear once it was found, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The cub was not with the bear when it was found, according to the Great Falls Tribune. Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the news outlet that he did not know what the cub’s chances for survival were.

“Though it is still early in the spring, people recreating outdoors in Montana need to be prepared to encounter grizzly bears as they emerge from winter hibernation,” officials said. “This time of year, bears are hungry and looking for food, and often sows have cubs close at hand. Also, with bears expanding their population and habitat, they can often be found in prairie settings, well away from the mountains.”


A grizzly bear (not the one pictured) attacked a Montana hiker Wednesday, officials say. AP

Helicopter gunners to kill Grand Teton park mountain goats

Because shotguns will be blasting from helicopters to kill mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park during the coming week, a temporary area closure for the public is being implemented in the central part of the park.

The closure is slated for Sunday through Jan. 12 and is bounded on the south by the South, Middle, Grand Teton, Mount Owen and Teewinot Mountain peaks; on the west by the park boundary; on the east by the western shores of Jackson, Leigh, String and Jenny lakes; and on the north by Rolling Thunder Mountain and Eagle Rest peaks.

“No public access will be allowed in the area during this time,” the park said in a news release. “Signs will be posted at main access locations.”

The park was given the green light to remove the non-native mountain goats from the Teton Range in November. The purpose is to protect the isolated native bighorn sheep in the range.

The park estimates that the bighorn sheep herd is at about 100 individuals.

The mountain goat numbers have grown to about the same size in the last few years and compete with bighorn sheep for food resources and can be a threat by transmitting disease.

“In order to aid in the conservation of a native and vulnerable population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the Teton Range, the National Park Service is implementing a recently finalized management plan to remove nonnative mountain goats from the park via lethal and nonlethal means,” the news release said.

The park said “helicopter-based lethal removal efforts” will begin on Monday depending on the weather conditions and finding the animals. Qualified ground-based volunteers will not be used this winter, in order to expedite the operation, according to park spokesperson Denise Germann.

“Timing of the activities is planned when park visitation is low and will be concentrated in the area between Cascade and Snowshoe canyons where the majority of the mountain goats are located,” the park said.

The mountain goats migrated into the Teton Range from the nearby Snake River Range after they were transplanted there to provide hunting opportunities.

“The mountain goat population is currently at a size where complete removal is achievable in a short time. However, the growth rate of this population suggest that complete removal in the near future may become unattainable after a period of about three years,” the park said.

An Idaho resident illegally raised an elk in captivity: ‘A sad ending’


This elk was illegally raised by a Gem County resident, Fish and Game says. (Photo courtesy Brian Marek, IDFG)

A bull elk may spend the rest of its life in captivity after an Idaho resident illegally raised the elk in Gem County.

Idaho Fish and Game says a resident of Sweet illegally removed the elk when it was a calf in the spring of 2018. The elk ended up leaving the area during the winter, but it returned to Sweet this spring.

Officers were receiving calls about the 400-pound elk roaming around the small town and it was unafraid of people.

“With the fall rut approaching, things could only get worse,” Idaho Fish and Game said.

“With plenty of elk in the Bear Valley area, it was hoped that the young bull would integrate into one of the local herds,” Fish and Game said. “But after two weeks in the wild, the young bull appears uninterested in its own kind, instead approaching curiosity seekers who have driven to Bear Valley in the hopes of spotting the animal.”

The elk, recaptured on Sunday, was deemed to be too habituated toward humans and will now live out its days in captivity. Previous attempts of finding the elk a home at an accredited facility were unsuccessful.

“A sad ending for what should be a wild animal,” Fish and Game said.

Fish and Game deploys game cameras to track wolf numbers



How many wolves are on the landscape in Idaho? That’s an often-asked question that Idaho Fish and Game is aiming to answer using game cameras during a new statewide population monitoring program.

In recent months, Fish and Game staff have deployed over 800 game cameras in a high-density grid throughout the state, which will take millions of pictures. When Fish and Game staff collect the cameras at the end of September, researchers will download and analyze the photos and apply statistical modeling to estimate the population.

Sifting through millions of photos will be labor intensive, but Fish and Game Wildlife Research Manager Mark Hurley is aiming to early next year have the most robust and accurate count of wolves ever in Idaho, and the first scientific population estimate since 2015.

Wolf monitoring evolves with changing wolf populations

Wolves were federally reintroduced into Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in 1995 and 1996. Between 1996 and 2005, Idaho’s wolf population was estimated using a “total count” technique to generate an estimate of the statewide population, which was appropriate when the total population was small and many wolves wore radio collars. Biologists could track individual animals back to their packs, get an estimate of pack sizes and then estimate the statewide population.

From 2006 to 2016, Fish and Game’s wolf monitoring program remained under federal oversight. Until May 2016, the department was required to maintain enough radio collared wolves to be able to demonstrate that there were more than 15 breeding pairs of wolves in that state and more than 150 total wolves. .

“This kind of monitoring was really targeted at federal Endangered Species Act recovery goals — that’s why we were doing that. That sort of effort works with very small populations,” Hurley said.

During this period, biologists counted the number of wolves within each pack from aircraft, or on the ground, during early winter, and used that information to calculate an average pack size. While they continued to count the actual number of wolves they spotted during surveys, wildlife managers also began using a new technique to estimate the statewide wolf population that was better suited to larger and more dispersed populations. They applied the average pack size in areas known to have packs, but where individual wolves were not necessarily seen and counted by a person.

As Idaho’s wolf population continued to grow, however, it became increasingly difficult to monitor the population. After wolves were removed from the endangered species list, Idaho took full management of them and hunters and trappers began harvesting wolves, it made keeping radio collars on wolves more difficult and costly.

“That monitoring used to cost about $750,000 per year, a large portion of which came from federal funding,” said Toby Boudreau, Fish and Game’s Wildlife Bureau Chief. “That funding tapered off from the time wolves were delisted in 2011 until it was eliminated in 2016.”

Idaho’s wildlife managers knew they would need to monitor wolf populations using a more cost-effective and efficient model than one based on radio collars, and the focus of their monitoring shifted to “occupancy” — or estimating the number of wolf packs in the state, rather than establishing a total wolf population estimate.

Expanding the use of game cameras

Beginning in 2016, researchers started using a grid of about 200 game cameras to detect whether or not wolf packs were present in predetermined areas scattered across the Idaho, which biologists call “occupancy cells.”

By determining what percentage of Idaho is occupied by wolf packs and monitoring changes over time, while also monitoring wolves’ impact on elk and deer populations, wildlife managers observed large-scale trends in the statewide wolf population, and managed wolves based on population trends, i.e. whether the overall population was stable, growing or shrinking.

“If the wolf population contracts, occupancies should contract, in the same way that they increase,” Hurley said. “You can also estimate the number of packs. That is what we can do with patch occupancy, because your occupancy cells are the size of a whole pack territory.”

Biologists also used DNA analysis from scat surveys and harvested wolves, allowing them to estimate pack counts, reproduction, and the number of wolves in small areas during the summer months. Using these methods alone, however, it was difficult to get an overall, statewide wolf population estimate.

That situation changed recently after researchers developed population-estimate techniques by using game cameras, similar to how biologists are already using cameras to count and monitor elk and deer populations in Idaho.

For the new method to work, wildlife managers needed to dramatically increase the number of cameras in the field devoted to wolf monitoring, which is why Fish and Game staff deployed hundreds of additional cameras this summer.

“What we’ve done is split these occupancy cells up again, and added additional cameras within them,” Hurley said. “That will give us enough cameras to generate an abundance estimate, which we can’t get with just the occupancy cameras.”


Idaho GOP considers ‘wolf hunter sanctuary state’ proposal

Parents’ rights and decriminalizing marijuana also on the table at meeting that concludes today in Boise

Idaho GOP officials will consider a proposal to designate Idaho a “wolf hunter sanctuary state” during their summer meeting in Boise today.

The two-day convention, which began Friday, gives party members from across the state an opportunity to mingle and meet with elected officials. It’s also a chance to take positions on various topics of interest and tweak party procedures.

The election of a new state party chairman highlights today’s agenda. However, officials will also consider a number of resolutions and proposed rule changes — several of which were submitted by Republicans from north central Idaho.

The list includes a new “platform loyalty and accountability” rule, which allows the state central committee to judge, reprimand and sanction any Republican legislator deemed to have undermined and opposed the core principles of the Republican Party.

The rule, proposed by the Idaho County Central Committee, lays out the procedure for challenging a legislator’s commitment to the party principles.

If the lawmaker is found guilty, a warning will be issued; if he or she is found guilty of a second violation, the committee would have the authority to withdraw the party’s endorsement, and the legislator would no longer be recognized as a Republican.

The Clearwater County Central Committee proposed the resolution designating Idaho a “wolf hunter sanctuary state.”

The measure cites the impact wolves have on the state’s moose, deer and elk populations, as well as on livestock. It also notes that Democratic jurisdictions have created various sanctuary regions by refusing to cooperate with federal officials on detaining illegal immigrants or other issues.

The resolution calls on the state central committee to work with Idaho lawmakers to pass legislation prohibiting Department of Fish and Game employees, as well as county and city officials, from assisting the federal government in enforcing any laws regarding wolves.

Once such legislation is approved, “hunters will be allowed to shoot and kill an unlimited number of wolves with no interference from any state or local officials,” the resolution declares.

Out-of-state hunters who have the necessary tags and licenses to hunt other game would also be allowed to purchase a special wolf permit for $10.

The Latah County Central Committee submitted a resolution supporting multiyear licensing for boats, motorhomes, ATVs and other recreational vehicles.

The resolution suggests that discounted three- and five-year licenses be created.

The Benewah County Central Committee proposed a resolution “to protect the rights of parents concerning their child’s health, safety and well-being.”

The resolution cites government-mandated vaccines, anti-homeschooling sentiments, the gay rights agenda and driver education requirements as potential threats to the fundamental right of Idaho parents to direct the upbringing, education and care of their children.

The measure encourages the Idaho Republican Party to support a parents’ rights amendment to the Idaho Constitution.

Other resolutions being considered at this year’s meeting include a proposal for at least one employee of every school to be designated a school security officer and be authorized to carry a concealed weapon; a proposal to decriminalize marijuana and all other forms of cannabis; and a measure supporting President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national border emergency.

$12 to Kill a Wolf in Montana

Center for Biological Diversity

APR 27, 2019 — 

$19 is apparently too high a sticker price for the privilege of killing a wolf in Montana. A new state proposal would cut the cost of a wolf-hunting license to just $12.

This sick disdain for wolves, literally cheapening their lives, once pushed them to the brink of extinction. The same forces who see wolves as target practice want to spread this mentality nationwide.

They must be stopped, and you can help.

The administration’s plan to take away Endangered Species Act protection from most wolves in the lower 48 would expose the animals to more hunting, more trapping, more shattered packs.

In some places it would cost more to go to the movies than to slaughter a wolf.

Idaho is even paying trappers to kill them.

These states are showing how little they care for wildlife and how easy they want to make it for wolves to be shot.

This is the war on wolves the Trump administration is encouraging states to wage.

The job of wolf recovery is far from over, which is why we’re pushing hard for a national recovery plan.

 

Don’t allow wolf traps Wolf-killing payments are unethical

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is planning to expand the wolf trapping season and to open private lands to trapping. On Jan. 27, a poster appeared on Facebook offering expense reimbursement of up to $1,000 from the Foundation for Wildlife Management. The payments are funded by a grant from Fish and Game’s Community Challenge Grant and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and are supported by the Fish and Game Commission, the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association and Idaho Farm Bureau.

Wolves were reintroduced in 1995 because a whole lot of people cared about wolves taking their proper ecological role in ecosystem health. The Legislature and the commission have made it clear that wolves, and other predators, are not welcome in Idaho. Fish and Game wildlife biologists and conservationists understand that predators are the most important piece of the ecosystem puzzle. Instead, the commission has teamed up with the Foundation for Wildlife Management to manage wolves with increased trapping. The commission is setting policy according to the wishes of the legislators, trappers, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Cattlemen’s Association, the Farm Bureau and their partner, Wildlife Services. There is no consideration of conservation whatsoever when it comes to predators.

Wildlife are so vulnerable in the winter. A baited trap, a snow machine or an ATV have nothing to do with sportsman-like hunting and are inhumane and unethical. The Wood River Wolf Project, a group of conservationists, has worked for years with ranchers to implement non-lethal methods for keeping livestock safe. The commission is ignoring its mandate to set policy based on good science.

The Department of Fish and Game has stated that since people like me don’t pay their salaries, I should not have a say about how wildlife is managed. But there are many Idahoans who care deeply for conserving wildlife and are willing to pay for conservation of wildlife. Please let the department and the commission hear from you.

Christine Gertschen, Sun Valley

Fish and Game trips on wolf trapping

Imagine a 10-year-old girl in tears when she wasn’t allowed to speak against wolf trapping after sitting for two hours in an Idaho Fish and Game-hosted meeting in Hailey on Feb. 19. Imagine how she felt when she was told that she could go to Boise to speak to the Fish and Game Commission on March 12. But how could she when it was on a school night? The room was packed with other concerned Blaine County citizens, but no one was allowed to speak. Apparently, this type of meeting by Fish and Game doesn’t allow public comment.

After years of respecting local values of coexistence with wolves, why is the Idaho Fish and Game Commission trampling on those values? Something has radically changed? For the first time, the commission wants to open wolf trapping on private lands in Blaine County. How does this reflect on our new Gov. Brad Little, who seems a moderate voice on the environment?

Whatever the Fish and Game rationale, wolf trapping in Blaine County ignores 12 years of collaboration with the Wood River Wolf Project, a program that deters wolf depredation of livestock through nonlethal means. Blaine County and the city of Ketchum have supported this program because coexistence with wolves expresses core citizen values of wildlife protection. The Wood River Women’s Foundation, a 380-member powerhouse, gave significant grants in 2017 and 2018 to support this important effort. Our community has spoken often and clearly.

Idaho Fish and Game has clearly tripped on wolf trapping on private lands in Blaine County. We can easily debunk the commission’s argument that trapping regulations should be uniform statewide. Why would these be uniform when most other types of hunting are regulated on an area-by-area basis?

With 1.6 million acres of land in Blaine County, there is often no distinction between public and private lands in remote canyons and valleys. Trapping anywhere puts the public at risk and ignores our hard work to coexist with wolves and all wildlife.

I urge you to contact Gov. Brad Little and the Fish and Game Commission against this proposal.

Sarah Michael, Blaine County


Sarah Michael was a Blaine County commissioner from 2001-2008.

Wolf trapping proposal is insidious first step

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is proposing to lengthen the wolf trapping season in areas of the Magic Valley Region where it is already allowed on public land and to initiate a trapping season on private land where no season currently exists, including in Units 48 and 49, which surround the Wood River Valley.

The pelt quality of furbearers is highest during winter. The quality of pelts from wolves harvested in October is likely to be poor. This feels like relaxing the constraints on legal harvest for the sole purpose of killing more wolves.

Extending the wolf trapping season to the end of March is alarming. Mating typically occurs between January and March. Gestation is 63 days. Trapping and killing an alpha breeding female in the last trimester of gestation or early lactation is barbaric. If she dies pregnant, whatever she is carrying dies with her; if she dies lactating, her pups will starve to death in short order. The legal wolf hunting season for 25 units across several regions begins on July 1 and ends on June 30. Is this the direction we’re headed for wolf trapping?

advertisement

Restricting wolf trapping to private land will not eliminate the threat of injury to people, pets or livestock. There are thousands of acres of private land in wolf country in Blaine County that the public may and does legally access. Recreation in Blaine County is highly centered around outdoor recreation, including hiking with dogs.

I fear that the private-land-only aspect of the proposed wolf-trapping rule changes has the potential for insidious incremental dismantlement. Are we beginning on a path that is simply a redux of the “private land first, public land to follow” scenario observed in other Fish and Game regions? What assurances do Blaine County residents have that this “evolution” will not occur here?

Wolf traps are effective because of the bait used as an attractant. Wolves will likely be attracted from remote locations that include public land. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area abuts private land in the Wood River Valley and a portion of the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness is in our backyard. Domesticated dogs will also likely be drawn to wolf traps on private land.

The Wood River Wolf Project, a collaborative consisting of sheep ranchers, federal and state agencies (including Fish and Game), wildlife advocates, wolf experts and Blaine County, employs nonlethal tools to prevent depredation by wolves on sheep and, as a consequence, to reduce or eliminate lethal control requests by operators who have incurred wolf depredation losses. Killing more wolves in Blaine County is not an outcome favored by most Blaine County residents.

The elk population in the game management units pertinent to Blaine County materially exceeds the high end of the target range. As a consequence, and to mitigate crop depredation losses and the associated costs to recompense farmers and ranchers, Fish and Game is pursuing significantly increased elk harvest in our area for the next several years while concurrently proposing to kill more wolves here. Why kill a native predator that kills elk if you want fewer elk? What about this makes any sense whatsoever?

There are fewer than 2,000 trappers active in Idaho. Only a fraction of those trap wolves. Many of those who do are compensated by outside parties in amounts greatly in excess of the value of the pelts. Fish and Game is one of those funding entities. Though these payments are characterized as “reimbursement” for expenses incurred, your state game management agency is paying bounties to trappers to kill wolves.

The proposed wolf trapping rules changes are confusing as to intent, are in conflict with the department’s elk management objectives, can only be viewed as the first step of several to further liberalize wolf trapping in Blaine County, raise ethical concerns in terms of the proposed season end date, benefit few, endanger many and, finally, are not wanted by most Blaine County citizens.