Patients arriving at the Lander Medical Clinic are directed to one of three entrances depending on their body temperature and health status. (Matthew Copeland/WyoFile)

Update, March 17, 2020 — Medical workers have identified seven new cases of COVID-19 in Fremont County, all “directly connected” with one announced March. 13, the Department of Health said in a statement. The discoveries, confirmed at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, brings the number of cases in the state up to 10.

“WDH is continuing to follow up regarding exposure risks of the new cases and will work to identify and communicate with anyone who may have been in close contact with them,” department spokeswoman Kim Deti wrote. The first Fremont County case occurred in a male at the Showboat Retirement Center in Lander. “Known contacts will be monitored for symptoms and tested if needed,” the statement reads.

Wyoming has increased its capacity for testing for the COVID-19 virus from 10 people a day to between 20 and 50, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said Monday.

Harrist made her comments in a press conference with Gov. Mark Gordon after returning from Lander where the first case of community transmission — infection arising without direct contact with a known carrier —  in Wyoming occurred. Medical personnel conducted testing in Lander “as appropriate,” she said without giving numbers.

Wyoming has three confirmed cases and has run 45 tests, she said. More than 100 other tests are in Wyoming’s lab or on their way to other diagnostic centers, she said. 

The number of tests that can be analyzed daily depends on how many the state lab receives and how many shifts it runs, Harrist said. Gordon said to expect more positive results. 

With increased testing, “there most likely will be an uptick,” in confirmed cases, the governor said. Jackson and Teton County officials learned Monday that large numbers of tests won’t be available for three weeks.

On Friday Harrist said she didn’t think there is widespread community infection in Wyoming. “I do not think there is extensive transmission that has gone unrecognized,” she said at a press conference. 

Gordon announced the formation Monday of five task forces to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and recovery from it. Wyoming’s top five elected officials will each head one of the task forces focused on health, state services and operations, business and financial matters, transportation and infrastructure, and education.

The groups will look to recover the state’s economy as Wyoming begins to pivot from reaction to recovery, he said. Last week he signed an order giving emergency authority to three other state officials guiding other responses to the pandemic.

As the former state treasurer, and recognizing Wyoming’s reliance on investment income, Gordon said he and other state officials “have been very concerned about the potential for recession.”

Nevertheless, because of the shock to stock markets, “there will be a monumental decline in the corpus [main body’s] value,” he said. “We have built a portfolio to withstand those kinds of shocks,” Gordon said.

Capacity concerns

Wyoming’s Pandemic Influenza Response Plan, which officials have said will serve as a framework for the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, says the state will need 21,823 hospital beds if it faces a worst-case scenario that resembles the 1918 influenza epidemic.

“There are roughly 1,400 hospital beds in Wyoming and approximately 500 currently available,” Department of Health Spokeswoman Kim Deti wrote WyoFile. “This does not include surge capabilities, where cots and unused beds can be used as a surge response.

“[N]ot everyone would need a hospital bed at the same time,” she wrote. “In 1918 the pandemic was spread over quite a long period of time. There are many differences in healthcare and disease prevention now as compared to 1918.”

Gov. Mark Gordon fields questions about the state’s response to COVID-19 during a live-streamed press conference. Gordon is flanked by State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, left, and Lynn Budd, Director of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security (screenshot of Facebook livestream)

The state has an electronic reporting platform through the Hospital Preparedness Program, she and Harrist said, that collects information on where beds are available.

“I’m told there are roughly 160 ventilators in the state between hospitals and ambulances,” Deti wrote. “We are exploring possibilities for more, but, it’s not just a matter of equipment because specialized staff is necessary.”

In Teton County, town and county officials learned Monday that St. John’s Health is arranging to potentially lease commercial space if the hospital runs out of rooms. Meantime, with some screening operations moved to an outdoor tent, the institution has an ability to increase its patient capacity.

Gordon and Harrist reiterated calls to follow recommended hygienic practices, social distance and to not congregate in groups larger than 50. The federal government today recommended gatherings no larger than 10. Harrist also said she supports the Teton County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell’s proposed emergency order that would close many businesses, from theaters to gyms to museums.

Teton County, epicenter of the state’s tourism economy, may be a harbinger of COVID-19 impacts and responses statewide.

Riddell said he would give businesses a couple of days before issuing an order, should he receive Harrist’s approval and decide to act.

In addition to the three ski areas, which have already closed, the draft order would shut theaters, bars, coffee and tea shops, employee cafeterias, unpackaged self-serve food services, buffets and salad bars, nightclubs, saloons, taverns, golf and country clubs, communal pools, hot tubs, locker rooms, saunas, steam rooms, fitness centers, gyms, conference rooms, spas and museums.

Restaurants could serve take-out orders in most circumstances.

Teton County Commissioner Mark Barron said hourly wage earners will be hard-hit. “They are very concerned about their jobs,” he told town and county officials. Riddell’s potential shut-down would create “an economic catastrophe,” he warned.

“I just want us to be very careful,” Barron said.

“What we’re focused on right now is prevention of community spread in the town and county,” he told WyoFile. “We need to get that behind us.” Addressing the economic fallout comes later, he said.

School’s out, so is the dog catcher

Don’t call the dog catcher in Lander or Riverton. Police won’t respond to minor incidents, including in Riverton to car crashes with damage less than $1,000. Some fingerprinting services have been suspended.

Complaints in Lander are being handled first in a mobile unit outside the department office and anybody with whom officers have contact with will be asked about their medical history.

The Wyoming Public Health Preparedness and Response logo. (Wyoming Department of Health)

“Be prepared to tell the dispatcher and officer if you are sick, have recently been sick, recently visited another country or recently visited any other affected state,” the Lander City Council said in a statement Friday. “Our officers will be donning personal protective equipment to protect themselves if they respond to your residence.”

A medical center in Lander  was taking similar precautions to screen visitors before admitting them.

There’s no visiting at the Teton County Jail; Circuit Court is being conducted remotely, the county sheriff announced.

Most of Wyoming’s 48 school districts have closed for three weeks, according to the Wyoming News Exchange. Evidence of community spread in Fremont County led State Superintendent Jillian Balow to recommend the closures, she said in a statement. 

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The number of district closures, like many developments with the pandemic response, moved quickly on Monday.  The state had listed only 10 districts closing doors in the morning. Balow’s notice said schools could continue to offer student meals.

Students who live in University of Wyoming dorms “should not return to campus after spring break,” Acting President Neil Theobald said in a statement. The University will deliver courses online for the rest of the semester.

Public interest is high. More than 2,200 people listened in to an online briefing given by officials in neighboring Teton County, Idaho on Saturday evening after a positive test returned on a woman younger than 60. Officials would not say whether she lived in the Wyoming service towns of Victor or Driggs or whether she had crossed Teton Pass into Wyoming.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Now comes the time to identify people for what they are based on their performance in this crisis. If you have no leadership within you, and you only use name recognition and education level surrounding yourself with those kind of people because you don’t wasn’t difficult people around you. You’re not at fault, You never did this before but you do have a lazy mind. People who provide you disagreement strength you and give you a better chance of being correct in your conclusions. A leader would welcome their questions and intelligence are an asset, not a threat. Right now it seems our leadership is waiting for national guidance. Unfortunately the boat (State) you have made for the crew under your leadership has no oars. When it becomes necessary to call on leadership and to exercise it, there will be no leaders, just followers. I am fortunate to have many sources for information besides the TV. I believe we are in a boat where no one knows what to do, nor do I, but leadership must do something. That’s why they are called Leaders. At the very least, Tell them to row with their hands until you come up with something better so we can try and go in a similar direction. I know we are normally last in most things, but Lord help us if we’re last to respond in this. Half our population is overweight (taboo to talk about) and in the age window of danger. Each community should be preparing for and will definitely need a respiratory center for hundreds of patients Depending on the size of the community. They must be lead too. Find the community leader people will listen to whether the like them or not. Traffic control to get there and Directions for positive and negative people. In short, If you cowboy up and act a fool, we wouldn’t see you later. PPPPP: Proper Planning Prevents P#$s Poor Performance. So, five (5) task forces, how do you charter five (5), how about one related to health and services to maintain a semblance of central control. oh yeah, send the non-essential state employees home with a plan to begin word there if possible. A task force without a knowledgeable leader is just a bunch of people trying how to form a task force. You must have lead a task force before to prevent it becoming a paper lion. In this thing, qualifications are everything. Where are our experts? To do nothing is to Fail… We have no choice but to rely on our elected officials, even the one shot ponies, because we put them there.

  2. Don’t forget our grocery store workers, after Docs, nurses, and other health care people, these guys are on the front lines of food supply, with significant exposure and low pay.