JOSEPH — The draw of tourism also can mean a draw of COVID-19 to areas where the economy is dependent on visits from outsiders, said Clay Josephy, an emergency-room physician who was the featured speaker during the weekly Josephy Center Brown Bag discussion Tuesday, June 16.
“The unfortunate bottom line for tourist areas is that the very thing we rely on for (a) sustainable economy is the very thing that predisposes us to community viral transmission and outbreaks: people interacting in close proximity in public,” Josephy said after the event.
The Brown Bags are Tuesday noon discussions twice each month with a topic and featured speaker, said Rich Wandschneider, director of the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture in Joseph.
“In ‘normal’ times, there are two Brown Bag programs each month, but with the pandemic, we decided to make them virtual and weekly, giving Josephy Center friends and followers opportunities to stay connected with us — and with each other,” Wandschneider said.
A native of rural Hailey, Idaho, Josephy is the grandson of Alvin Josephy, the historian for whom the center is named. The younger Josephy spent his summers in Wallowa County growing up and has been a regular visitor here for more than 40 years. He understands the need for tourists here, but as a physician in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., he also understands what coronavirus can mean for tourist towns.
“We rely on people coming from other places, which puts us at risk of imported cases,” Josephy said after last week’s event. “We rely on services such as restaurants, pubs, theaters, public events, gatherings, concerts and guiding services all of which bring people in proximity, which is what the virus needs to be transmissible.”
The Tahoe area, of course, has more major urban centers than Wallowa County from which to draw tourists, but the outcome can be comparable.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we actually had a law in place that no one was allowed to visit our area from the outside, but since that has expired, we are in the thick of it with more tourists arriving every weekend,” he said. “I’m sure Wallowa County is experiencing similar.”
Josephy stressed both the lack of real knowledge of how to combat the virus and the great need to do what we know will have some effect.
“There is not a lot we can do specifically, and this creates a lot of anxiety among residents — and especially those of us in health care — as we must maintain vigilance and have our systems and protocols in place to rapidly expand our capacity at short notice,” he said. “We have a very small hospital and have made huge efforts to maximize our ability to care for patients during the COVID pandemic. During the tourist season, we are stretched to max capacity with the visitors, their injuries and illnesses, and the thought of adding a surge of COVID patients on top of that already stretched capacity is a problem. There is not a lot we can do about it except remain vigilant and stay prepared for any scenario.”
He urged the local community to take it upon itself to do what can be done.
“Businesses having protocols in place to distance patrons and tourists, having capacities at restaurants and stores and attempting to keep people outside as much as possible” will help, Josephy said. “Offering masks and hand sanitizer to people entering places of business and making sure adequate cleaning and environmental services for public spaces is imperative. And most importantly, the community needs to have a plan in place to respond to a rapid rise in cases or hospital admissions, and this may require shutting down tourist industries or even shutting the borders to the area if things get dire.”
During the Brown Bag, Josephy gave many details on what is known of how coronavirus spreads. He emphasized that both droplets — from coughing — and airborne aerosol from breathing and sneezing are believed to transmit the respiratory infection. Droplets and airborne germ transmission is also spread by surface contact.
“The majority of contact is transmitted by droplets or surface contact,” he said. “It’s not one or the other; it’s both.”
Josephy also compared the transmission of coronavirus with a “reproductive number” established on it and other viruses. Coronavirus has a reproductive number of 2½ to 3, while influenza is only 1½. Measles, on the other hand, is much higher with a reproductive number of 18 for the known airborne pathogen.
Since last week’s discussion was held on the conferencing medium Zoom, attendees were able to ask questions. One man, who said he and his wife are in their 70s, asked if they should take the chance by getting out in public, despite the low number of cases Wallowa County has experienced so far.
Josephy urged the man to not take the risk.
“But you are right; the virus will travel everywhere. It will arrive in Wallowa County,” Josephy said. “But there are a lot of things you can do and not just lock yourself in in a closet.”
He repeatedly emphasized social distancing, washing and sanitizing hands and simply being aware of where an infection could come from.
“Think about the airway,” he said, referring to how germs could spread from another person. “That’s where the virus is coming from.”