County braces for coronavirus outbreak
Measures now in place to protect community from COVID-19
March 19, 2020
On Tuesday morning, ten confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been identified in Wyoming, two in Sheridan and eight in Fremont County. As the virus continues to spread across both the nation and the world, local authorities are already preparing for a more serious outbreak and taking measures intended to slow or prevent the spread of the virus.
“We have activated our emergency operations center,” says Emergency Management Coordinator Ed Robinson. “We have an incident commander in place.”
This means, says Becky Tinsley of Crook County Public Health, the organization that has been appointed as incident commander, that “the people who are the decision makers are now in constant contact with each other and we’re constantly sharing information to make sure we are making the best decisions, hour by hour.”
“We’ve called in the experts to give us the best guidance we can possibly have and we’re just going to maintain fluidity and adjust as necessary,” she says.
Governor Mark Gordon signed an executive order on March 12 declaring a state of emergency in Wyoming. This is a proactive measure that allows the governor to more quickly activate the Wyoming National Guard if necessary and makes state businesses eligible to apply for federal funding from the Small Business Association.
“I have taken this action to ensure we are prepared in the event additional steps need to be taken,” Gordon said. “We continue to be most concerned about our state’s elderly and vulnerable populations and want to ensure we are taking all necessary steps to address what we may face going forward.”
Gordon held a press conference Monday afternoon in which he announced that the state has created a unified command center and the state lab is increasing its capacity for testing. Steps are being taken that are “deliberate and intended to slow the spread,” he said.
Five task forces, headed by each of the five top elected officials, have been created to focus on a response to the virus, each tackling a different aspect: health, state services and operations, business and the financial sector, transportation and infrastructure and education.
President Donald Trump last week also declared a national emergency, which freed up federal funding to fight the pandemic.
If you feel sick, are congested, have a fever or cough or are experiencing shortness of breath, a rash, runny nose, muscle aches or sore throat, Crook County Medical Services District advises you stay home.
According to a statement from the district, 80% of COVID-19 cases can be managed at home by alternating Tylenol and Ibuprofen, increasing your fluid intake and resting.
“For anybody who has any symptoms, we are recommending 14 days of self-isolation,” says Crook County Health Officer James Larsen. “Self-isolation means within the confines of your own yard.”
Larsen stresses that, if you are experiencing symptoms and want to speak to a medical professional, you should call the hospital at 283-3501 or Public Health at 283-1142 rather than attend in person.
Please call the hospital and dial zero if you are concerned about having a respiratory illness. There will be someone to screen you over the phone and provide instructions.
“Testing is very restricted and strict criteria must be met before patients are tested. Testing is only done on high risk, very ill individuals due to limited testing supplies,” says the statement from CCMSD.
“If you have severe shortness of breath (respiratory distress) please call the hospital before you come so we can ensure that you are treated as soon as possible in an appropriate manner. If it is an emergency, please call 911.”
Stopping the Spread
The most effective way to prevent the spread of coronavirus right now is through social distancing, says Tinsley: staying at home and away from other people as much as possible. Larsen warns that it may be possible to be a carrier of the virus before you develop symptoms, or without ever displaying any.
Through preventative measures, we still have an opportunity to prevent COVID-19 from spreading within this community – or at least lessening its impact.
“This is the ultimate test of altruism,” she says. “If we’re willing to stay home and be bored to avoid public spread of the disease, that’s the ultimate act of altruism. We’re taking care of our neighbors this way, and that’s what it boils down to: protecting others and not just ourselves.”
“Maintain your distance and avoid large gatherings – and that goes for our school-age population too,” says Larsen, advising that kids stay home and avoid intermixing with their peers. “This isn’t a vacation, we’re trying to stop the spread of this virus.”
Larsen recommends that local businesses consider allowing all employees who are able to work from home to do so. Any employee who displays symptoms should also be asked to stay home.
If you are unable to work from home or must go out in public to fulfill other responsibilities, follow CDC guidelines to maintain social distance of at least six feet, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face and cover coughs or sneezes. Disinfecting surfaces regularly may also help keep the virus at bay.
In terms of stocking up on supplies, Larsen recommends ensuring you have two weeks’ supply of food and medications on hand in case you need to self-isolate for that amount of time. There is no need to stock up any more than this as supplies will continue to be replenished, he says.
Purchasing more than this can actually be detrimental, he adds. If you purchase all the hand sanitizer, for instance, the next person will not be able to buy any – and that could cause them to spread the virus.
Tinsley asks that the community consider those who don’t have the financial ability to stock up. Please ensure there are still items available for those people, she says.
Meanwhile, Tinsley says, please consider contacting elderly or housebound people to offer assistance. However, she cautions against spending time in the company of elderly or immune-compromised loved ones as you may still be carrying the virus even if you are not displaying symptoms.
In particular, Public Health has issued a strong directive against visiting senior centers, assisted living and other facilities with populations at a higher risk from the virus. “People can still take them supplies, but this isn’t a good time to go over and have a social gathering,” she says.
Tinsley feels confident that the people of Crook County will do the right thing for their neighbors.
“We historically have always taken good care of each other in this community and we just expect nothing but the best out of our people this time too,” she says.
As of Monday morning, all visitation to the hospital and long term care is prohibited. According to Amber Ondriezek, RN DNS-CT, this is because 100 percent of the population of the hospital and long term care is in the highest risk category in terms of mortality from contracting COVID-19.
Emergency services are still available through the emergency room.
Entry into the hospital is now limited to the main door; all others have been locked for containment purposes. Someone will be available during business hours to screen you on arrival.
Family and friends are welcome to drop off items for their loved ones in the lobby entrance. The district anticipates that these precautions will remain in place for the next 30 days and may be extended depending on the severity and spread of the disease.
In addition, Crook County Medical Services District has suspended several outpatient services: cardiac/pulmonary rehab, the gym, dietician consults, diabetes education, cash pay wellness visits. If you have a routine clinic visit, labs or radiology tests that can wait, the district asks that you consider postponing them.
Patient masks are currently on back order; if you already have one, please wear it when visiting the hospital. While at the county’s medical facilities, please socially distance yourself as much as possible (at least six feet) from other people, wash your hands frequently and cover coughs and sneezes.
On the advice of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Governor Mark Gordon, Crook County School District (CCSD) has joined a number of other districts around the state in closing until further notice.
“While we do not have any confirmed cases at this time, we are taking preventative measures to reduce the possibility for spreading the virus,” said Superintendent Mark Broderson in a statement sent out to families. “This is especially prudent considering the size of our medical facilities and staffing.”
The recommendation from Balow and Gordon went out on March 15 and suggested all schools remain closed until at least April 3. The state will continue to monitor developments regarding the virus until that time with the goal of getting students back in classrooms as soon as is safely possible.
“This is Wyoming, where we are all neighbors,” Governor Gordon said in a statement. “While social distancing should be a priority for all of us, it should not keep us from helping out our neighbors. 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.”
CCSD will not be using formal distance-learning activities, according to Broderson, as this approach does not allow for equal access among all students. The district will be sending out information shortly on how it intends to provide services and meals for students and any optional resources available for student learning.
“At this time it is impossible to know if we are overreacting, but it’s better than underreacting and experiencing a much more severe outcome,” said Broderson in his statement.
Please note that the school district closure includes a blanket cancellation on all activities, says Broderson.
At the present time, Broderson expects the schools will remain closed until April 3 and classes will resume on April 6. The buildings will be open on March 25 and April 1 to prepare learning activities for students and work on getting meals to homes.
Cancellations and closures
The City of Sundance is closing its offices to help contain the spread and maintain critical operations; until further notice, staff will be available via phone and payments must be left in the box outside the front door, made online or mailed in. The decision has been made on the advice of Crook County Medical Services District, says Clerk-Treasurer Kathy Lenz.
“We have to promote people staying home, because that’s the best way to cut the spread of this,” she says. “We can still accommodate our customers, but we felt that shutting the door traffic element down was going to be a key element for the health and safety of staff.”
A number of local events have been cancelled or postponed until further notice, including the Democratic convention and presidential preference caucus on April 4. At the current time, the Wyoming Democratic Party Central Committee is promoting the option to caucus by mail, while drop-off caucusing will be evaluated over the coming days.
Other events include a Mental Health First Aid training that had been scheduled for March 20 in Moorcroft.
“Our Jackalope Jump and all Special Olympics have been cancelled,” says Kassie Clements, Adapted Physical Education, CCSD. “They are hoping to do the jump in the fall. If you have already donated, that money will still go into our team account and will be documented.”
The annual health fair and its associated wellness blood draws have also been postponed, as has Preston Sharp’s visit to the county to honor veterans’ graves in local cemeteries.
Paul Demple, CEO of Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center, announced a one-week closure in preparation for the expected outbreak, starting on March 16. The closure will allow the center to develop a contingency plan for the provision of services.
“All Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center Inc. offices in Sheridan, Johnson, Crook and Weston counties will be closed during this time. Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center will continue to provide crisis services,” said Demple in a press release. “The health and safety of NWMHC staff and clients is of the utmost importance. We appreciate the inconvenience this may cause, and we are working to diligently resume services in a healthy and safe way.”
If you need medication refills during the closure, Demple advises calling your pharmacy. For patients of the center experiencing crisis situations, call 283-3636.
Tinsley and Larsen both encourage the community to follow the lead of those who are cancelling social events and closing down access to the public. The epidemic may not yet have hit Crook County, but the precautions they recommend for social distancing are intended to help keep COVID-19 at bay. If we follow the guidelines, says Larsen, there is still a chance we’ll be able to stop the spread.
What to do during the outbreak
The Wyoming Department of Health’s current priority recommendations include:
Stay home when sick and avoid contact with other people unless you need medical attention. This is the number one way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 or other illness in our communities.
Follow advice from CDC on what to do if you think you may be sick due to COVID-19: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html.
Follow common-sense steps such as washing your hands often and well; covering your coughs and sneezes; and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.
Everyone should follow CDC recommendations on mass gatherings, which currently recommend cancelling or postponing events of more than 50 people.
Older people and those with health conditions that mean they have a higher chance of getting seriously ill should be careful to avoid crowds or situations where they may be in close contact with others.
Older people and those with health conditions that mean they have a higher chance of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 should avoid all nonessential air travel.
Everyone should follow CDC recommendations to avoid foreign travel to many areas and cruise ship travel.
Everyone should carefully consider COVID-19 risks and their personal situation before any significant travel within the United States. More advice from CDC can be found at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-in-the-us.html.