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Many Rural Areas In the Mountain West Avoided COVID-19's First Wave. Are They Ready For A Second?

A screenshot of an interactive USAFacts map. The counties in white have yet to have a confirmed COVID-19 case.
A screenshot of an interactive USAFacts map. The counties in white have yet to have a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Nearly half of all counties in the Mountain West have largely been spared from COVID-19, according to recent data from the nonprofit organization USAFacts. Many of these communities weren't untouched, but all have had fewer than five confirmed cases of the virus. 

They include a vast expanse of rural, eastern Montana as well as some tourist destinations, including Sandpoint, Idaho, and Moab, Utah. 

Christine Porter, a public health professor at the University of Wyoming, chalks the current outcome up to a combination of luck and a relatively quick embrace of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

"Unlike the East and West coasts, we were able to implement public health measures before the spread," she says. "That stopped it from spreading exponentially."

However, Porter warns that the phased reopening of many states in the region could lead to a second wave of infections. That's because, for the most part, the Mountain West hasn't implemented extensive and comprehensive testing and tracing to isolate cases. It also needs to ramp up wide-scale monitoring. 

Testing a community's sewage and using phone applications that file and track COVID-19 symptoms is the cheapest way to find out whether a hotspot is beginning to emerge in a city or county, according to Porter. 

"Without that, we're just going to go right back into the fire," she says.

While more than 100 counties in the region have largely been uninfected by the virus, Porter says that doesn't guarantee they'll remain spared from any subsequent waves. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News

Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio. He earned an M.A. in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism in 2016 and interned at NPR’s Morning Edition in 2014. In a prior life, he toured around the country in a band, lived in Texas for a spell, and once tried unsuccessfully to fly fish. You can reach Nate at nate@ypradio.org.
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