COVID cases drop, but health officer warns of ‘significant exposure’ at Cody event

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Following a surge in late June, the number of active cases of COVID-19 in Park County has continued to drop. As of Sunday morning, there were 18 people with active infections, according to Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin. That’s the fewest number since June 25 and down from a peak of 53 active cases on July 5.

Additionally, two COVID-19 patients who had been hospitalized at Powell Valley Healthcare at the start of last week — one from Park County and another from Big Horn County — have been released, Billin said Friday. The health officer said he was not sure whether a Cody man who has been hospitalized in Billings with the disease had been discharged.

However, after a lull in new cases of the novel coronavirus for roughly a week, there were seven new positives on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, Billin specifically warned of “significant exposure to COVID-19” from a July 19 event held at a restaurant in downtown Cody.

“If you attended this event, please monitor your symptoms (including but not limited to fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, or loss of smell/taste), call your healthcare provider, and consider being tested,” Billin wrote in a Facebook post.

Billin did not specifically name the event or the restaurant, but it was a private meet and greet held on the outdoor patio at Gasthaus Cardi for a group of local Republican candidates for the Wyoming Legislature: Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, Tim French, Nina Webber and Rachel Rodriguez-Williams.

Billin said in an email that five people associated with the restaurant have tested positive: one on July 19 (the day of the event) and four on July 21. He said all of the staffers “have been contacted by contact tracers and have been given appropriate isolation orders.” Billin indicated there was a sixth, probable case, but his email didn’t make clear what connection that person had to the other five cases.

“No attendees at the event have been quarantined for close contact with a lab confirmed case that I am aware of, but some may need to be,” he wrote in the email; Billin said public health officials “have had less than ideal cooperation” in trying to trace the contacts that the infected staffers may have had with other people.

The four candidates featured at the meet and greet and Gasthaus Cardi owners Chuck and Ricki Struemke said in a Saturday statement that their understanding is that “a few attendees” later tested positive for COVID-19. The candidates and restaurant owners said they were “devastated” to hear the news and “gratified and happy that the establishment has acted in a responsible manner, voluntarily closing to review their COVID-19 protocols.”

Gasthaus Cardi had temporarily closed after the July 19 event, but that was due to the death of a staffer’s family member, a shortage of workers and the Struemkes’ desire to spend some time with their son, who recently returned from a deployment with the Wyoming National Guard, Ricki Struemke said.

It was only the following day, July 20, that they learned the first staffer had tested positive for COVID-19, she said in a Facebook post, adding, “Since we were closed we stayed closed,”

“... at no time did we or anyone who attended the meet and [greet] know of anyone who was sick on that day,” she added. “We regret that it turned out that there was.”

Gasthaus Cardi will remain closed until the end of the month, she said, cleaning and disinfecting the business in accordance with public health standards and then reopening.

Billin said it appeared the business “chose not to notify the public” about the positive cases.

“We issued a public announcement as soon as we became aware of it,” he said, adding that the larger size of the gathering (dozens attended) and the difficulty in tracing contacts played into the decision to issue Friday’s “urgent notice.”

Ricki Struemke wrote in her Facebook post that notifying the public “was best left to the professionals at the health department, not us. I was called and cooperated with them to the best of my ability.”

She also thanked Park County Public Health officials “for their responsible notice to the public.”

A Sunday meet and greet for Webber and French was delayed following the news and, “out of an abundance of caution,” French said he decided to not attend Saturday’s Park County Junior Livestock Sale in-person, instead appointing a proxy to bid for him.

In their joint statement, candidates French, Rodriguez-Williams, Webber and Laursen and the Struemkes asked for prayers for a swift recovery for those who have tested positive.

“Everyone should continue to treat this outbreak seriously,” they added. “We must make decisions based on science and facts, and not let panic and emotion rule in reacting to COVID-19.”

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