Sun Valley Resilience Heroes: Dr. Terry O’Connor

Sun Valley Institute’s (SVI) Resilience Heroes Series recognizes the individuals, businesses, and governments that are building lasting quality of place locally and globally by implementing resilience-based solutions from energy use to water use to waste and beyond. At its core, resilience is the capacity to deal effectively with shocks and disruptions of all kinds. Here in Sun Valley, where our natural assets are central to our quality of life, SVI focuses on resilience to strengthen our ability to bounce back from harm to our local economy. Sun Valley Institute ensures lasting quality of place by advancing solutions for economic, ecological and social resilience locally and globally. By highlighting the work of inspiring local and global Resilience Heroes, we hope to strengthen public understanding of resilience and spark individual and community-wide action for a resilient future.

As an Emergency Room Physician, Terry O’Connor has cultivated personal resilience since his early days in medical school. He was trained to deal with shocks and disruptions every day- that’s one of the first line items on his job description. Responding to a global pandemic, though? That’s an entirely new variety of emergency. In the new COVID-19 reality, Terry has taken a central role in our community’s response; he is also the Blaine County/ Sawtooth Regional Emergency Medical Services Director. “I plan for unprecedented events so we can appropriately respond and take care of everyone in our community.” He explained. “During COVID-19 that means being able to ensure we can take care of anyone who gets sick. To do so, we must prevent overwhelming the medical system as best we can. I also need to make sure that our local Fire and Emergency Medical Services personnel are protected and that they’re not being exposed to unnecessary risk.” Terry was gracious to take a few minutes out of his very busy schedule to discuss our COVID-19 reaction, and what we can do to increase our resilience in the coming months.

From your perspective, what do you see as the biggest risks we face as a community from COVID-19?

Dr. O’Connor: To put it simply, the biggest risk we face is the loss of life. We have one of the highest per-capita rates of COVID in the country, if you were tested for coronavirus in Blaine County there was a 40% chance that your test came back positive. To put that in perspective, in New York, about a third of those tested came back with a positive result.

Theoretically, as a rural community, we have less medical capacity, but because we’re part of the larger St. Luke’s medical system we’re able to buffer that. As a part of the St. Luke’s system, we are able to transfer critical patients out to the larger St. Luke’s hospitals in Twin Falls and Boise that are equipped to care for those individuals when we can’t. Being a part of that system is what allowed us to get through this first round of infection without further loss of life. If Twin Falls and Boise had as much disease prevalence as we did, they wouldn’t have been able to accept as many of our transfers and our local medical capacity would have been overwhelmed. By sharing the load we’ve been able to effectively mitigate our risk during this first round of the disease. 

We also have to be innovative to expand and develop logistics to deal with a sudden surge, which means working with hospital system emergency planners, volunteer personnel, and even philanthropists who want to donate equipment and materials.

And then there is the burden of learning how to respond to a novel threat at the same time you are trying to fight it.

SVI: Has responding to this challenge revealed any unexpected systemic problems that you didn’t anticipate? If so, can you describe them?

Dr. O’Connor: We expected and had to endure a lack of access to quick, timely, and extensive testing.  We’ve tried to fill those gaps by paying for testing and working with our hospital foundation to acquire more testing and support our public health partners with case tracing to contain future cases of the disease. By not having a national healthcare system many members of our community who might worry about the expense can fall through the cracks, and may not be able to receive adequate care. Our public health system is understaffed and underfunded.

SVI: How would you describe our community’s response to this challenge? (What do you think we could be doing better? What are we doing well?)

Dr. O’Connor: As a tight-knit community, we have responded well to this challenge. We are able to hold one another accountable for our behavior, and that goes a long way in terms of slowing the spread of the disease. One of the most difficult aspects of responding to COVID is that if we’re reacting effectively, there should be very little evidence of the disease in our community’s day to day life. It’s easy to ask “What’s the big deal?” when you can’t see any dramatic impacts of the virus, but what that actually signifies is that we’re doing a good job in slowing the spread as a community. 

Thanks in part to our relatively isolated, low-density region we are actually well-positioned to be one of the first communities in the nation to suppress the virus effectively. Though our infection rates have slowed, they have not stopped. We are just over one month into our self-isolation order, and there is already evidence that residents are starting to move around again at a much higher rate. We have started out on the right foot, but to build on this progress and potentially act as a model for the rest of the county, we are going to have to sacrifice as a community for the long-term greater good. It won’t be (it hasn’t been) easy. These are trying times and in order to come out of this, we must each make personal sacrifices for the better of our collective whole.

SVI: Do you think the impacts of this crisis will change the way our medical system operates in the future? If so, how?

Dr. O’Connor: I hope this helps us come together as a nation to create a system that is both effective and accessible for all. In the absence of a nationalized structure, there is no formalized federal guideline for testing and containment- we’re trying to work it all out on our own as best we can.

SVI: What measures would you recommend adopting to increase our resilience in the face of future outbreaks?

Dr. O’Connor: Now that we know there is a strong likelihood that we will be hit with additional rounds of disease, I would recommend the following:

  • Improve testing capacity to enhance surveillance for new hot spots of disease before they grow
  • Bulk up staffing and personnel for contact tracing
  • Adopt new innovations that allow real time notification if you have been in contact with someone with the disease
  • Create a supply reserve so that we are not faced with equipment shortages
  • Maintain a reserve of available hospital beds to account for increased numbers of sick patients 

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