By Nathan Oster
The young man from Big Horn County who tested positive for COVID-19 is reportedly doing well in his recovery, but concerns are mounting about the number of people in the county who may have already been exposed to the virus, which has killed more than 33,000 people in the United States.
Appearing in a press conference Thursday afternoon, Big Horn County law enforcement and public health officials serving on the COVID-19 incident response team voiced frustration about people ignoring social distancing recommendations and called upon the communities help bring it to a stop.
“There is no unaffected town right now in Big Horn County, probably Park County, possibly some of Washakie County and southern Montana; it’s that broad right now,” said Sheriff Ken Blackburn, adding his deputies “were up most of (Wednesday) night” working in concert with Park County law enforcement investigating possible exposures.
Blackburn said the public’s exposure “is coming in the back door right now,” citing springtime parties in the hills being attended by more than 10 people. Blackburn said that on three occasions this week, his deputies foiled the plans of young people who had stashed pallets and dry wood in the hills in three different hotspot areas in anticipation of a bonfire.
Not every party will be detected, however. Some have taken place.
“We know for a fact that some of the people who have been potentially exposed to this are attending those parties,” said Blackburn. “Consequently, they’re potentially exposing other people, and consequently, those people are potentially bringing it back into your homes, your businesses and other places.
“This is how quickly it can go.”
Blackburn said he’s been reluctant to this point to direct his deputies to issue citations, but that he will not hesitate to do so moving forward if he thinks people are intentionally violating the order and putting others at risk.
“We have tracked one of these exposures right into health care facilities through family members who work at a health care facility, back to a youth, back to the party and back to potentially exposed people.”
Blackburn later added, “Is this going to be a problem? I don’t know. But it is a problem from the standpoint that the potential for disaster has opened itself up. Everyone has worked so hard and put in so much time, we’ve about crashed our economy to protect everyone, and now to have some people just disregard it. From a criminal standpoint, we will prosecute this sort of thing, particularly if it’s a very clear situation.”
Blackburn encouraged county residents to help law enforcement bring the situation under control. Anyone with information about people violating the public health orders is asked to provide written statements to an officer in their jurisdictions.
Dr. David Fairbanks, the county’s public health director, said that as of Wednesday night, there had been 288 confirmed and 105 probable cases of COVID-19 in the state. Two people had died. In Big Horn County, there was just the one confirmed case, along with one probable case.
Like Blackburn, Fairbanks said he’s concerned about community spread, saying, “We believe we probably have two dozen of our youth who have been exposed” and that he expects to see “a little cluster of cases” develop in the coming days and weeks.
Now, more than ever, social distancing is key because the virus is “everywhere,” he said.
“People have asked me, ‘What town should I avoid?’ My response has been appropriately vague,” said Fairbanks. But the truth of the matter, he said, is that “because of the number of contacts and the number of locations where those contacts live now, there’s not a single town in the county they can avoid.
“It’s not like I can say, ‘Don’t go to the south end of the county because we know it’s down there,’ or ‘Don’t go to the north end because we know it’s up there.’ It’s in the county and it’s everywhere.”
Fairbanks added, “We are past the point of containment and avoidance. The only way to avoid it is to stay in our space and in our homes and hopefully do those things we’re talking about — keeping six feet of social distance, wearing a mask, washing your hands, staying home — that we know help flatten the curve.”
Fairbanks said there have been some positive developments in terms of antibody tests. Abbott Labs is reportedly going to deliver 20 million to the nation by June. “Those tests haven’t been extensively tested and may have a false negative rate if they test people too early when they haven’t developed antibodies,” he said. “We’ll see how that helps us track the disease. Hopefully it will help us relax the economic restrictions we have right now. But I don’t foresee that happening next week or the week after that.”
Later, Fairbanks said the peak for Wyoming isn’t expected to come until mid-May and that he doesn’t anticipate any sense of normalcy to return until “sometime past June.” He did not speak optimistically about the potential of schools reopening or regular graduation ceremonies taking place next month.
“We are going to want to make sure we don’t have a resurgence of COVID, which could come back stronger and harder because we think we beat the enemy down, have flattened the curve and that it’s OK to go back to normal things, let our guard down and keep the gates open,” said Fairbanks. If people do that, he added, “the enemy could come back to bite us.”
Blackburn and Fairbanks were joined at Thursday’s press conference by LaRae Dobbs, the county emergency management director; Hillary Mulley, the public health manager; Chad Lindsay, the public health response coordinator; Chris Kampbell, the Basin chief of police, and Lori Smallwood, the county clerk.
Each of them offered reports. Among the highlights:
• Lindsay said the county received another shipment of personal protective equipment from the state and that it came in one box, underscoring the need for the county sterilize and reuse what it already has and continue the production of masks.
Blackburn added that the county received just 50 N-95 masks from the national stockpile. “That’s for the entire county,” he said.
• Dobbs said financial assistance for businesses, towns and schools “is still evolving” and that she’d be sharing information as she receives it. She also hit the high points of a financial management guide and COVID-19 response fact sheet put out by FEMA. One key point: Businesses positioning themselves for financial relief must set up separate, very detailed accounting of their time and expenses.
Dobbs also encouraged businesses to try their best to maintain a positive cash flow for as long as they can and not to count on quick payments from the federal government. When it comes to reimbursements, it can take awhile, she said.
• Kampbell thanked the operators of marquee signs around the county for posting COVID-19 emergency information and said local efforts to produce hand sanitizer are ramping up.
• Blackburn encouraged residents who haven’t already done so to sign up for Code Red community notifications. A link is provided on the sheriff’s office website. The county uses the system to send emergency information directly to people’s phones. An example would be the alert that went out Sunday when the county learned of its first confirmed case of COVID-19.