Best of the West Special Edition: Increasing testing and contact tracing across the region; telework’s growing popularity; broadband investments in New Mexico

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest COVID-19 related news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 4, 2020. Photo courtesy of OPB/AP.

As governors across the country move to the next phase of their COVID-19 response, reopening states, several important considerations have emerged.

At the top of that list is testing. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock has set the goal of conducting 60,000 COVID-19 tests per month, according to Montana Public Radio, with a specific focus on nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and tribal communities. "With enhanced surveillance our goal is to take a sample of the representative population in certain communities to get an estimate of what could be happening with the virus," the Governor said.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is also looking to expand testing capacity. The state Health Authority recently released a plan to bolster its efforts in rural areas, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, which will involve couriers and consolidation of hospital networks’ testing strategies into a cohesive unit.

Contact tracing – the practice of monitoring COVID-19 patients and determining who they may have come in contact with – can also help ensure a safe reopening of Western economies. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has established the state as a leader in this respect. According to Governing Magazine, the Peace Garden State is the only place in the country that currently meets the suggested threshold of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people.

Another important aspect of the public health response is antibody testing, which can determine who may have been previously infected – and therefore potentially immune – to the virus. The peace of mind that comes with antibody testing, however, has some caveats. According to Bitterroot Magazine, although more than 70 companies have plans to introduce such tests to the market, only four have been granted FDA approval.

Furthermore, although experts postulate that a prior COVID-19 infection provides some degree of immunity going forward, the extent of that immunity and its duration remain a mystery. Consequently, there is no guarantee that testing positive for coronavirus antibodies means that the individual in question can safely reenter society.

To learn more about what WGA governors are doing to combat the spread of COVID-19, check out our state-by-state breakdown, updated weekly.

Government Telework: Even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus necessitated it, many state and local government employees were embracing telework. In fact, a recent survey showed that 27% of eligible positions worked remotely on a regular basis, Route Fifty reports. Although some of this bump is a result of COVID-19, researchers believe that much of the increase was present independent of recent developments. "This survey will be an increasingly important baseline as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold," said Gerald Young, a senior research associate. "Overall, the data shows a continuation of recent workforce trends, but we anticipate dramatic swings in future years.” Here’s what that means for the West’s economy.  

Broadband Investments: With COVID-19 exacerbating the digital divide, much attention is being devoted to increasing internet access, especially in rural communities. As part of this push, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing $23 million to expand broadband service into unserved and underserved areas in New Mexico, according to Governing Magazine. Among the recipients of the grant money are ENMR Telephone Cooperative, which was awarded $19.2 million; the Acoma Pueblo, which was awarded $942,000; and the Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative, which received $3.1 million. The funding will be used to, among other things, expand telemedicine services and help agricultural producers market their products online. Learn more.

Refusing to Give Up: Earlier this year, business was booming at Jamaal Lane’s Portland, Oregon-based Champions Barbering Institute. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, “he’d just enrolled a new class of 20 students at the school and had 14 barbers working for him in three shops across the metro area.” In March, COVID-mandated social distancing forced him to suspend operations until the public health emergency passed. Despite the setback, Lane refuses to give up. “I’m looking at it as what if our doors never open back up? Do I hang up what I’m doing and just give up? Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re still going to move forward, one way or another.” Find out how Lane plans to bounce back.

Bird Watching: Although many hobbies have become difficult or impossible to pursue in the era of COVID-19 restrictions, bird watching has seen a remarkable uptick in interest, AP News reports. Popular bird identification apps have seen a spike in downloads, and even as demand for many nonessential goods plummet, sales of bird feeders, nesting boxes and birdseed have experienced an increase in sales, based on preliminary numbers. “Birds are everywhere now. They’re singing, they’re migrating, they’re nesting,” said Sarah Swanson, a coordinator for Portland, Oregon’s Birdathon fundraiser. “They’re busy every minute of the day doing all these interesting behaviors — and I think that’s what draws people in.” Read more about the hobby’s growing popularity.

The Latest on the Western Governors’ COVID-19 Response

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