Best of the West Special Edition: Searching for a vaccine in Montana; improvements in testing and contact tracing; challenges faced by rural hospitals

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 April 27, 2020. Photo: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (right) meets with Dr. Jay Evans, director of the University of Montana’s Center for Translational Medicine. Courtesy of the University of Montana.

Testing and Tracing: In support of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s push to improve his state’s COVID-19 testing and contract tracing program, several tech companies have begun development of smartphone apps that could help track the disease’s spread. Although many counties already have robust contact tracing measures in place, according to Governing Magazine, harnessing the power of smartphones can speed the process significantly. Additionally, Los Angeles recently became the first city in the country to offer COVID-19 testing to all of its citizens, whether or not they are symptomatic. Learn more about the Golden State’s impressive response to the novel coronavirus.

Vaccine Efforts: The Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana is working on a vaccine for COVID-19, Montana Public Radio reports. Previously, the 40-person lab has developed inoculations for the flu, tuberculosis and even opioid addiction. Director Jay Evans, armed with $2.5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, estimates a year-long timeline for the potential vaccine to move from the lab testing to the manufacturing phase, and a year and a half before it is ready to enter the first phase of clinical trials. "You’re coming into work every day, in the midst of this shutdown: It’s important to know that you’re doing it for a reason," Evans said. Read more about the University of Montana’s efforts.

Bridging the Digital Divide: The advent of social distancing creates an increased reliance on internet access for daily tasks, such as remote work, distance learning and ordering groceries. For many parts of the rural West, broadband access is not ubiquitous. Moreover, many establishments that traditionally provide pubic internet access, such as libraries and coffee shops, are closed. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, several public utility districts in Washington are addressing this problem by establishing drive-up WiFi hotspots at a variety of locations, including parks, fire stations, community halls, port authority offices and rural schools. Here’s how they’re making it happen.

A Leg Up on Testing: The general consensus among public health officials is that adequate testing systems must be in place to effectively combat the spread of COVID-19. Two states from the West are leading the way when it comes to making that a reality. Utah and New Mexico have consistently been ranked among the top dozen states for COVID-19 testing per capita, and more importantly, reports KUNC, only approximately 5% of those tests have come back positive, signaling that their efforts are paying off. "I think what Utah and New Mexico show us is that clearly this is doable," said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Discover what’s helped lead to their success.

Trouble for Rural Hospitals: Research shows that public-sector hospitals, common in rural recreation counties, are particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to The Daily Yonder, decreased tax revenues and a sharp rise in demand have put the fiscal health of these establishments in jeopardy. “The rural health care system is already getting by on a shoestring,” said Mark Haggerty, a Headwaters Economics researcher. “Rural hospitals [are] closing and the remaining hospitals [are] being easily overwhelmed, especially in these rural communities that have demands beyond the local population.” Find out how these health systems are coping.

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