New coronavirus brings closures, rippling effects to Park County

Officials urge ‘social distancing’

Posted 3/17/20

On Wednesday — some four months after the new coronavirus began spreading in central China — the first case of the disease was confirmed in Wyoming. And in a matter of days, the virus …

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New coronavirus brings closures, rippling effects to Park County

Officials urge ‘social distancing’


Last week — some four months after the new coronavirus began spreading in central China — the first case of the disease was confirmed in Wyoming. And in a matter of days, the virus that once seemed a far-off threat had caused substantial disruptions across the state as health officials sought to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Although the virus had yet to be detected in Park County, by Monday a slew of local events had been canceled or postponed as precautions; schools, pools and libraries across the county had been shuttered until early April; Northwest College extended its spring break and prepared to move classes online; and local residents were being encouraged to stay home.

“Everybody has to remember that this is a disease that’s showing exponential spread and exponential growth,” Dr. Aaron Billin, Park County's health officer, said Tuesday. “People are walking around Cody today saying, ‘I don’t see what the big deal is,’ but they’re going to get up one morning to find their world has changed.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming: one in Laramie County, two related cases in Sheridan County and eight in Fremont County.

Seven cases in Fremont County were confirmed late Monday; the Wyoming Department of Health said the new cases were directly connected to a case involving an older man at an assisted-living facility in Lander, where health officials say there may be “community spread.” On Tuesday, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department announced it was temporarily closing its office in Lander, after employees there began "exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19" and were told to self-quarantine.

“We don’t yet know exactly how easily COVID-19 spreads and how many people will experience severe illness,” Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer, said Monday. “We expect to identify more cases in the upcoming days and weeks. While we are facing a rapidly developing situation, the risk to most Wyoming residents remains low at this time.”

Gov. Mark Gordon declared a state of emergency on Friday, shortly after President Donald Trump did the same on a national level. On Monday, Gordon announced he and the state’s other elected officials were forming task forces to coordinate the state’s response to the pandemic.

“We are rapidly escalating our response to the very real health concerns coronavirus poses,” Gordon said. “As we do, however, we must realize that closing businesses and suspending travel and public events poses a threat to employment and business viability. Our responses to these threats must be focused and measured, and that’s what these teams will bring to a changing situation.”

Most people who contract the disease will suffer mild cold-like symptoms and might not even realize they’re sick, health officials say. However, the virus can cause severe illness and, in rare cases, death. Initial data indicates it’s both more infectious and deadlier than influenza — a disease that sickened more than 35 million Americans and killed 34,200 during the 2018-19 flu season.

Health officials say COVID-19 poses a particular risk to the elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases. And part of the public health concern is that people infected with the virus can spread it without showing any symptoms.

“There are lots of people walking around right now that have it [and] may not even know they have it,” Park County Public Health Nurse Manager Bill Crampton said Friday.

If the virus spreads too quickly and widely through the 329 million people in the U.S., the number of seriously ill patients — though representing only a small fraction of the total number of cases of COVID-19 — would overwhelm the country’s health care system.

For instance, “Powell, Wyoming, has three fully-occupied senior living facilities and only two intensive care beds in our local hospital,” said Dr. Dean Bartholomew of 307Health. “The concern about capacity to meet the potential care needs for our town during an outbreak is very real.”

That’s why health officials have been imploring people to limit their interactions with others and keep their distance to “flatten the curve” — that is, stopping the number of cases from increasing exponentially to an unmanageable level.

“What we’re really trying to do with all the things we’re trying to do here, is avoid overloading our two or three isolation beds in the hospitals and overloading the hospital itself,” said Crampton. “And you do that by the social distancing, the good handwashing [and] the good, normal precautions you take for anything else.”


Plans in place

At Powell Valley Hospital, leaders have made extensive preparations for an outbreak in the area “and have a good plan in place,” said PVHC spokesman Jim Cannon. That includes how the hospital intends “to accommodate as many [patients] as we possibly can,” if the need arises, he said.

Those who have a cough, fever or shortness of breath and believe they might need treatment for COVID-19 can call PVHC clinical staff at 307-754-1242.

“If somebody has symptoms, we would encourage them to call and then we can help them from there,” Cannon said; Cody Regional Health has its own line set up at 307-587-2000.

Meanwhile, following guidance from federal regulators, no visitors are being allowed inside the Powell Valley Care Center or The Heartland assisted-living facility. That ban on visits is set to run through at least April 1, Cannon said.

“We’ll reevaluate, but that’s what we’ve set in place for the time being,” he said.

Preventing the virus from entering facilities with large numbers of elderly residents is a top priority because of their vulnerability to COVID-19.

People picking up prescriptions at PVHC are also being encouraged to use the new drive-through window instead of entering the hospital itself.

Cannon said the efforts are aimed in part at keeping people from congregating at the hospital — to protect residents at PVHC’s facilities, patients, staffers and the community as a whole.

“We don’t want there to be fear,” Cannon said. “Certainly you want to be prepared, but we also want people to understand, you know, that everything’s OK, we’re just being prepared for it.”

At the Powell Senior Citizens Center, staffers continued to serve meals in the dining room through Tuesday, with added precautions. Those included spreading out people while they dined, limiting center foot traffic to seniors, providing hand sanitizer and wrapping all the silverware.

“Right now I’m trying to keep the fear at bay and keep some normalcy, if you will, and at the same time keep everybody safe and as not exposed as possible,” program director Cathy Florian said Monday.

However, on Tuesday afternoon, the senior center announced that it would close to group meals going forward. The center is still offering meals through home deliveries, cubrside deliveries or through in-person pickups at the senior center. Anyone with questions can call the Powell Senior Citizen Center at 307-754-4223.

Social distancing

Around the country, health officials have been setting increasingly stringent guidelines for social distancing. Some initial restrictions urged canceling events with more than 1,000 people; by Sunday, the CDC was recommending that event organizers cancel or postpone any gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. Then on Monday, federal health officials said to scrap gatherings of 10 or more people.

One of the main goals has been to prevent people from carrying the disease from one community to another. That’s why Crampton made a “strong suggestion” that a Saturday roller derby event in Powell — which was set to feature teams from around the region — be called off; organizers of Shamrocks & Shenanigans Heart Mountain Roller Derby agreed to do so.

“I’m not trying to tell people what they have to do; I don’t think any of us want to be in that position,” Crampton said. “This is not a communist thing, we don’t have that kind of power, but if you have a reasonable conversation with folks and you talk about the risks and everything else, they’re coming to good decisions.”

He added that it’s tough to cancel or postpone events, noting the work that goes into planning them.

“And it’s just like everything else, it’s just ... it’s a huge impact,” Crampton said.


Governor cancels Park County trip

As an example, Gov. Gordon, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, State Treasurer Curt Meier and State Auditor Kristi Racines canceled a Monday trip to Park County, where they were scheduled to meet with government and business leaders in both Powell and Cody.

During the “Capitol for a Day” event, the state officials had a full slate of stops, being set to tour GT Aeronautics, GF Harvest and Club Dauntless in Powell and meet with several business people in Cody — including a stop at Kanye West’s Yeezy headquarters. They were set to cap the day by helping to cut the ribbon on Gunwerks’ new facility and attend Forward Cody’s annual banquet.

But Forward Cody CEO James Klessens said that by Friday, things became uncertain. A meet and greet scheduled at Einstein Bagels on the Northwest College campus had to be taken off the morning’s agenda because the college had extended its spring break; then Cody Regional Health gave word that the roughly 40 state and local government and economic development officials would no longer be able to hold their luncheon at the facility’s conference center, as the hospital was implementing new precautions. And between COVID-19 and other work following the Legislative Session, the governor relayed that he wasn’t going to be able to make it.

“The long and short of it was we just made what we thought was a logical decision to postpone [everything],” Klessens said. It was among many local events to be wiped from the schedule.

“It’s a weird time,” Klessens said.


Taking care of neighbors

Gordon said in a Sunday news release that “we are all neighbors” in Wyoming and suggested lending a hand to others.

“While social distancing should be a priority for all of us, it should not keep us from helping out our neighbors,” he said. “I am thinking of our first responders and healthcare workers on the frontlines who may be without child care. This is a time, if the risk is low, to help one another out.”

Park County officials have been discussing ways to organize volunteers who want to help one another.

Crampton suggested that family members or others should pick up prescriptions and groceries for older residents — particularly those at risk — who should be staying at home.

“Sit on the deck and drink a glass of wine or build a fire … read a book. Don’t watch the news,” he said of his advice to older residents. “Listen to some good music, enjoy yourself and [know] we’re going to do our darndest out here to keep everybody as safe as we can.”

“But again,” he said, “we’re counting on common sense and everything else.”