By Nathan Oster
Members of the incident command team handling the COVID-19 response in Big Horn County said on Thursday that the county’s second confirmed case would not derail reopening efforts and that they remained committed to the measured, thoughtful approach outlined by the governor and the state’s top health official.
The team’s weekly Zoom meeting and press briefing came one day after the announcement of the county’s second confirmed case and one day before gyms, salons, beauty parlors and day cares were allowed to begin reopening around the state.
Hillary Mulley, the county’s public health manager, said the second person to test positive was an adult male, completely unrelated to the county’s first confirmed test, which officials confirmed on Thursday had been centered in the Emblem area.
A North Big Horn Hospital official announced on Wednesday that the second patient had been tested at its mobile medical unit. The patient did not enter the facility, but was sent home to continue his care. Mulley said the state had completed its investigation into the exposure and close contacts and that the potential spread was far smaller on this case than it was on the first one. Mulley said the state has already contacted those people, and that if you weren’t notified, it means “you’re sitting where everyone else is — at low risk.”
Dr. David Fairbanks, the county’s public health officer, expressed frustration with the circumstances that led to the second confirmed case, calling it “irresponsible.” He said the patient contacted it from someone who came in from outside the state for a training session. The company that put it on “didn’t have to do that,” he said.
“It could have been online. We don’t want to see it happen again. Let’s be smart about this.”
In spite of that setback, Fairbanks said there isn’t enough data to move him off his position that it’s “flatlined” in the county. “I hope we don’t see it go up, but we need two more weeks of data,” he said. “The rest of the state looks like it showed its peak somewhere around April 1.”
Blackburn emphasized repeatedly on Thursday that he’s concerned about “witch hunts” and “lynch mobs,” saying a lot of people are “operating without facts” and “trying to create issues that aren’t even close to true,” not caring at all about “who they hurt or step on in the process.”
He also challenged the assertions of those who say socialism is on the rise, not only at the federal and state levels but also at the county level.
“We’re not looking to keep this thing closed down,” he said. “We want it opened up as much or more than you do. But we’re trying to do it responsibly and we’re trying to do it factually. We recognize this is miserable, but we’re moving forward as fast as we can. Our plan is ahead of everyone else’s. You are going to hear other counties are having graduation, doing this or doing that. But Momma always said, ‘Just because someone jumps off a bridge, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.’
“We understand people are upset, people are frustrated, tempers are flaring, but please take a deep breath. We’re not trying to do anything negative. We don’t want your business to fail. But (if your business is allowed to open too soon), you could get a positive, it could be determined (that you were allowed to open) outside of what the scientific guidelines are. Someone could then sue you and your business could fail.”
In other highlights from Thursday’s Zoom meeting:
• Blackburn said he expected the issue of the day today (Friday, May 1) to be the status of worship services in the county. He said LaRae Dobbs, the county’s emergency management director, would be pushing the governor’s office to take a position on the issue.
Blackburn indicated that places of worship are included in phase one of President Trump’s plan to reopen America, but at the state level, they were not included. Instead, the state’s orders centered on gyms, salons, beauty parlors and day cares in phase one.
“We are going to be asking why churches weren’t included,” he said, saying later, “The right to worship is paramount.”
Fairbanks said that worshiping in groups would continue to be a challenge as long as gatherings are limited to 10 or fewer people. “If there’s a church in, say, Emblem that had nine people, that would be a no brainer. We could do that,” he said. “But most have more than nine people.”
Fairbanks pointed to the success of drive-in and online worship services, saying that’s still the best approach for churches.
• Dobbs announced that the county attorney is currently reviewing a draft plan for the reopening of the county and when it’s finalized, it will be posted on the county’s website. The plan will outline the various phases and the criteria that will need to be met before advancing to the next one.
Also in the plan, she said, will be guidance for businesses — specifically, “things they need to think about before reopening, things they need to do to their buildings, things they need to do for their staff and patrons and final preparations.”
The plan will also include guidance for business owners who wish to request a variance from the county to reopen their business in advance of the state’s timetable for reopening. Dobbs said the county would accept and review any variance requests it receives, but warned that it would be a tough sell.
“The county intends to be centric on the governor’s policies without variances,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you cannot ask. We do intend to consider them. But at the same time, we intend to stay in line with the state.”
• On the topic of testing, Dobbs said that in the fight against COVID-19, the United States has already been approved for 70 emergency authorizations of testing procedures — more than were authorized for the last three pandemics combined. “It’s not like people are sitting on their hands, not doing anything,” she said. “We’re doing far better than the media makes it sound like we are.”
Later in the meeting, Fairbanks said there is no shortage of testing supplies in the county. “We have more tests than there are people who want them,” he said. The catch is, however, a lot of people don’t want to pay for them; they want the government to pay.
• Chris Kampbell, chief of police in Basin, said he continues to be amazed by the community effort in the production of cloth and N-95 masks, which involved the four school districts.
• Chad Lindsay, the county’s prevention specialist and public health response coordinator, urged businesses that are being allowed to reopen on May 1 to participate in webinars being put on by the Wyoming Business Council.
• While team members emphasized that they wanted the county to reopen as quickly as possible, Fairbanks cautioned against people getting ahead of themselves, particularly when it comes to graduation ceremonies. “I’m continually asked by people with family wanting to come in from out of state for graduation … that’s the reason we have another case in Big Horn County. I’m not saying one case in 400 is going to change the governor’s trajectory, or that one person out of two significantly changes the trajectory of our county. We just don’t want to turn around on the progress we are making.”
Fairbanks said that while sympathetic, it’s a bad idea to invite relatives from out of state for graduation. He also stressed that he has known kids whose graduations were impacted by school shootings and the 911 attacks who overcame the loss of those ceremonies and went on to be successful and happy in life.
• On several occasions on Thursday, Blackburn made a note to thank the members of the incident command team for their hard work, as well as all of the volunteers who are working behind the scenes to help others. It’s been a difficult week, in particular, for the county’s firefighters. Nearly all of them have been called out at one point or another, be it for runaway springtime burns, or in the case of Burlington, a significant house fire. Typically about three quarters of a fire department’s annual calls come from mid-March to mid-May. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am for our fire departments,” he said, adding ambulance and law enforcement because they, too, are putting their lives at risk every day.
Later, the sheriff was filled with emotion when discussing the overall community response. Admittedly a “Polyanna,” always looking for the good in every situation, Blackburn said he recently learned that some food businesses were taking meals every day to truck drivers who work for the bentonite companies.
“Then I think of the thousands of masks and I think of the small, arthritic hands that have sewn those and who are so dedicated…it just brings a tear to my eye,” he said. “No one will attack any of our volunteers in this county and not see the dark side of this sheriff come out.”