Rae Ellen Bichell | KUNC

Rae Ellen Bichell

Mountain West Reporter

As a regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau, I cover stories that matter to people across the states that touch the Rocky Mountains, with a focus on science and health.

Before coming to Colorado, I reported from Washington, D.C. and Helsinki, Finland. As a national science reporter with NPR, I covered general science and biomedical research. In the spirit of bringing humanity and humor to sometimes dry topics, I once managed to dig up a recording of NASA astronauts lamenting the presence of excrement floating through their shuttle.

I spent some time in Finland as a freelance journalist and Fulbright grantee before returning to the U.S. as a 2013 NPR Kroc Fellow. I was part of a reporting team that won NPR a Peabody Award for Ebola virus coverage.

Devon Christopher Adams / Flickr

San Miguel County, Colorado, is one of few places in the world where testing has been offered to an entire community. As the Mountain West News Bureau has reported, a biomedical company is offering blood tests for free to all residents there over 8 years old. 

Bryan Jones / Flickr

State officials from around the country, including four in the Mountain West, have signed a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to make it easier for more people to donate blood.

Some potential donors have to practice months of abstinence before they can give blood. The rule only applies to certain people — namely, men who have sex with men. It also applies to women who’ve had sex with men who have, in turn, had sex with other men.

Teddy Errico

Amid nationwide testing shortages and backlogs, one county in our region is offering COVID-19 tests to everyone. A local couple is bankrolling the effort. And it’s not the usual nostril swab. It’s a blood test. 

Billy Barr

“The snow’s going sideways, it’s swirling,” said Billy Barr, from the abandoned silver mine he lives in almost 10,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains.

We’re all social distancing these days, and it’s unclear when exactly that will end. But Barr has been doing this for almost 50 years. He’s the only full-time resident of Gothic, Colorado. 

“I'm the mayor and chief of police,” he said. “I hold elections every year but I don't tell anybody when they are, so it works out really well.”

Kent Kanouse / Flickr

San Miguel County in Colorado announced this week it plans to test everyone in the county for COVID-19. And they’ll be using a blood test rather than the usual nose-and-throat swabs. 

The test typically being used at this point involves a method called PCR, which looks for pieces of the virus’ RNA in a person’s nose and throat. It only shows if someone is actively fighting and shedding the virus.

Rae Ellen Bichell / Mountain West News Bureau

Sometime around Valentine's Day, a box arrived at a lab on the western edge of Fort Collins, Colorado. It contained vials full of coronavirus and it was just what Lindsay Hartson and her colleagues had been waiting for.

"We were really excited because it meant we could start doing the work," said Hartson.

As the graph below shows, the number of COVID-19 cases reported by public health agencies in the Mountain West is climbing. But what do those numbers actually say? 

NIAID-RML / NIH

What's the difference between isolation and quarantine? How exactly does testing work? With the fast-moving pace of news surrounding the global coronavirus outbreak comes a slew of scientific and health-related terms and concepts.

We've gathered up some of the more common ones for a quick explainer.

NIAID-RML

Teams around the world -- including at least two labs in the Mountain West -- are racing to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus. 

A group at Colorado State University is working on ways to inactivate the virus, which is one option for developing a vaccine. 

The GEO Group Australia

Support for our series Private Prisons: Locking Down The Facts came from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a non-profit news organization that partners with journalists and newsrooms to support in-depth reporting and education around the globe.

Around when I was setting up a trip to Australia to report on a private prison there, things were not looking good for the industry in my home state of Colorado. Politicians were talking about phasing them out entirely. And the GEO Group, a private prison company, announced it would close its one Colorado prison, amid concerns about staff shortages and lack of services for inmates. The state’s head of corrections was talking about the need to move away from prisons that are “stark and idle places without purpose [or] hope.”

But over on the other side of the world, there was Ravenhall, a prison run by the Australian subsidiary of that very same company, GEO. And everything about it flew in the face of the narrative I was hearing. 

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