By Isabella Alves and Margaret Austin
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Now that the first case of COVID-19, the new strain of coronavirus, was confirmed in Wyoming, state officials are telling residents how best to prepare, which Gov. Mark Gordon said “does not mean you need to stock up on a year’s supply of toilet paper.”
The governor, along with the Wyoming Department of Health, superintendent for the Department of Education, Wyoming Department of Homeland security and other officials held a news conference Thursday evening to discuss the state’s response, discourage attending events with more than 250 people and reassure Wyoming residents that the risk level is still low.
“I want to stress this was not unexpected, and we’ve been preparing for this eventuality for some time now,” Gordon said.
The state’s response
As of Wednesday evening, the Wyoming Department of Health has tested 16 people for COVID-19 with only one returning a positive result. According to Kim Deti, Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman, there were no updated numbers for tests conducted Thursday.
At this time, a Sheridan County woman still remains the only confirmed case of the virus in Wyoming.
The Sheridan woman who contracted the virus had a history of domestic travel and is currently in isolation, Deti said. The health department was able to follow up with the people she had close contact with, and they are currently quarantining themselves, according to Alan Dubberley, communications director for Sheridan Memorial Hospital, where the woman was tested.
Dubberley said there is not an “undue risk” for hospital staff and that they continue to carefully screen patients who show symptoms.
“We anticipate that we will see more cases, whether they’re related to this or not,” Dubberley said.
Deti said high-risk residents – including the elderly and people with diabetes, heart disease or other illnesses – should be careful in looking at their personal risks when it comes to situations such as traveling or attending large public events.
While the health department hasn’t made any recommendations about event cancellations, Gordon said he’s recommending that gatherings with more than 250 people shouldn’t be held.
“The most vulnerable citizen in our state deserves our commitment, as well as our health care providers, by enacting mitigation measures to decrease the spread of the disease, and most importantly not overwhelm our health care facilities, should the need for high level care be required,” Gordon said.
He emphasized that at this time, there isn’t an increased risk for Wyomingites concerning the virus, and if anyone does decide to cancel an event or close a school, to contact the governor’s office so they can be aware.
State, local and federal officials are also working to establish a unified command center in Cheyenne to aid in any potential outbreak. The center will have regular meetings to keep officials updated and plan the best courses of action, said Lynn Budd, director of the Wyoming Department of Homeland Security.
The local effects
The effects of the coronavirus’ spread to Wyoming have already been seen in Cheyenne and Laramie County, with events like the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra and the City Youth Basketball Tournament being canceled as a precautionary measure.
Mayor Marian Orr met with stakeholders from Laramie County School District 1, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, the Cheyenne-Laramie County Department of Health and the Board of Public Utilities on Thursday afternoon to discuss the city’s response plan and how to mitigate risks.
“We need to bring everybody together so we have one voice – we’re working off the same information, the same facts,” Orr said.
Collaboration between departments will be a strength in Laramie County in the case of an outbreak, Orr said. At their afternoon meeting, local officials discussed the possibility of a drive-thru testing site at CRMC’s parking garage. And thanks to a current memorandum of understanding with Laramie County Community College and Cheyenne Frontier Days, testing sights could also be set up at those facilities.
Orr said the ability to mobilize resources together is a “plus we have in our community.”
“We’ll be able to minimize exposure to other individuals,” Orr said.
A number of health care facilities are already taking measures to protect their patients. CRMC stated that no children under age 12 or visitors with cold or flu symptoms will be allowed in any area of the hospital.
The Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center is screening all visitors for potential health risks.
“It is evolving, and we will continue to be very fluid and make sure our veterans are getting the best care possible,” said Samuel House, Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center spokesperson.
Some local businesses are also concerned about the well-being of their customers and are taking steps to help mitigate risks.
Jumpin Jack’s Family Fun Center owner Kishore Kodru announced Thursday they would be closing shop for a period of time to ensure no customers are affected through the business, especially because of the number of children who go to the center.
“Money can be made, but we don’t want to be part of (the spread), especially before a vaccine or cure,” Kodru said.
Visit Cheyenne CEO Domenic Bravo said they have received questions about upcoming conferences scheduled in Laramie County, although no events have been canceled at this time.
“We’re hoping not to see any major impacts,” Bravo said, though he noted that they will be monitoring any recommendations from the state and local departments of health.
Overall, Orr said the coronavirus could have a “large” hit on the economy, and that anyone who feels well should still enjoy all Cheyenne has to offer.
“We have to continue to support our local businesses,” Orr said.
Emergency preparedness on state and local level
Cheyenne-Laramie County Emergency Management Director Jeanine West said emergency management has been coordinating with community entities to make sure emergency plans are in place.
She said it’s emergency management’s role to provide support, as it’s partnering with the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department. She said responses are coordinated on a case-by-case basis, and there are plans in place for events such as mass vaccination clinics or mass testing clinics.
In this instance, there isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19, she said, but if the proper supplies are given to Wyoming by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then mass testing would be possible.
Emergency management’s primary concerns are health care and medical supplies, West said. However, she did say that in the initial stage, emergency management is prepared, has plans in place and the staffing to execute those plans.
Wyoming received about $4.5 million from the CDC to help combat the virus, state health officer and state epidemiologist Alexia Harrist said. Wyoming was given enough testing materials to conduct hundreds of COVID-19 tests, she said, and the health department isn’t worried about testing supplies at this time.
Harrist also wanted to clarify that there has been a lot of talk about “testing kits,” and the way the virus is tested isn’t like a standard in-house test for illnesses such as strep throat. These tests have to be done in a professional laboratory, she said.
Deti said generally the process to get tested is people call their local health care provider, who will determine if they need to be tested for COVID-19. The doctor will then request a test from the health department.
The doctor would then collect samples from the patient, such as nose or throat swabs, and send those samples to a laboratory to be tested. These samples don’t necessarily have to be tested at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, but all test results are communicated with the department.
F.E. Warren Air Force Base is also prepared for any potential viral outbreak on base, Lt. Jon Carkhuff said.
On March 5, the base conducted a tabletop exercise with first responders about COVID-19, and are maintaining good communication with the community.
COVID-19 wouldn’t impact the base’s mission readiness and ability to perform its mission, Carkhuff said. The base has also canceled large group gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, and has instituted a new gate procedure to minimize person-to-person contact.
The health and safety of the airmen and families on base and those living in the community, are of paramount concern, Carkhuff said. The base does share concern with the community because airmen live and work in the community. He said the base has great interaction with the community and are working in an appropriate manner to take care of airmen as well as friends in the community.