County leaders encouraged by positive trends in COVID-19 response

By Nathan Oster

The encouraging trends that led Gov. Mark Gordon to ease the restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 at the state level Wednesday afternoon also exist in Big Horn County, where there are currently no active cases.

Just hours before the governor took the podium in Cheyenne, Sheriff Ken Blackburn hinted of starting to disband the COVID-19 incident command team that has been coordinating the county’s response since the crisis began in March.

“We’ve got some really good movement in our county,” Blackburn said at the outset of Wednesday’s meeting of the incident command team. “We are starting to talk about demobilization — or at least scaling back our county involvement in this emergency and letting this start to be handled with the people, as it should be.”

LaRae Dobbs, the county’s emergency management director, said a closer look at the numbers show widespread improvement. For the record, Big Horn County has had three cases to date — two of which were lab confirmed, a third which has shown up in the “probable” category on the Wyoming Department of Health website.

“Rest assured, we do not have a third active case in the county,” she said, alluding to a rumor making its rounds on social medial. “We have zero active cases, and all of the counties surrounding us have zero active cases. Sheridan, Johnson, Washakie, Hot Springs, Park and Big Horn, they are all at zero, which is fabulous news.”

Statewide, there were 675 cases as of Wednesday at noon. Dobbs said that includes 513 lab-confirmed cases and 162 probable cases. Of that total, 477 people had recovered, 191 were still considered “active” and there had been seven deaths.

“Most of our 191 cases have been in Fremont County, which is experiencing the largest hardship for this,” said Dobbs, chalking it up, in part, to a much higher testing rate. “Most of their tests have gone to private labs, and as we discovered previously, that costs quite a bit of money.

“But the medical systems they have in place for tribal nations in Fremont County can pay for that testing, so they have been able to push that testing. The big news, though, is 477 recovered, zero cases in our county and zero in surrounding counties.”

While the data is encouraging, Blackburn emphasized that personal responsibility and common sense on the part of the public will be more important than ever in the days and weeks ahead as the easing of restrictions continue.

Big Horn County Public Health Officer David Fairbanks was unable to attend the meeting due to a family emergency, but a caller, Genevieve Briand, referenced comments he made about the “upward trajectory” when its case count went from zero to one, which in turn justified a “concerning” grade in new cases on its new matrix. Briand wanted to know if another confirmed case in the county would set back the county’s plans to reopen.

Blackburn defended Fairbanks, saying he’s “been very supportive of getting things open” and reiterated that he’d rather be accused of going overboard on precautions than paying a heavier cost because the threat wasn’t taken seriously enough.

“Everyone likes to play armchair quarterback … but we didn’t know what we were dealing with,” said Blackburn. “Even with that increase, we’ve opened up restaurants, we’ve opened up bars, banks are open, churches are open, schools are meeting the needs of special populations, so I’d challenge anyone who says we’re trying to restrict anyone or trying to move backwards.

“Everything is moving forward.”

Blackburn said the county is now talking about bowling alleys, summer celebrations and movie theaters.

“If there’s anything left, please feel free to let us know,” he said. “We’d be glad to start working on that.”

Responding to charges that they’ve gone too far, Blackburn said the incident command team “is really trying to be cautious of government overreach. … A lot of people were fearful (of COVID-19) and in hindsight, especially with the fact we haven’t seen anything with the possible exposures, those are good signs. But I would absolutely stand up for every member of this team who has worked hard to do the right thing for you, the citizens. I applaud them for their efforts.

“We hope, I really hope, that we don’t have to do anything further except get completely out of your lives.”

In other news from Wednesday’s briefing:

• Hillary Mulley, the public health manager, outlined the three variances that had been granted in recent days. The two approved Friday allowed outdoor seating for restaurants and bars and gatherings of religious organizations. A third on Monday morning allowed indoor dining for restaurants and bars. In the case of all three, the variances include multiple provisions that must be met and place the responsibility of enforcement squarely on business owners.

Blackburn urged business owners who were still dealing with restrictions and contemplating a variance to consult the resources available on the county website and email the incident command team directly at covid-19@bighorncountywy.gov.

• One question that was raised on Wednesday was the status of summer celebrations — and in particular, what steps organizers of these events should be taking now in case COVID-19 restrictions aren’t eased any further. Blackburn said variances would be needed and that the county/incident command team is willing to assist organizers in the preparation of their variance requests.

Because it comes first on the calendar, Greybull’s Days of ’49 will continue to be a greater topic of discussion leading up to day one of the celebration on Thursday, June 11. In addition to a rodeo and a parade, the Days of ’49 also feature a tug-of-war, a car show and drag races.

“What we do with Greybull is what it’s going to look like the rest of the summer (for the other celebrations),” he said.

• Basin Chief of Police and ICT member Chris Kampbell provided a rundown of Saturday’s food giveaway at the Frontier Mini Storage facility two miles north of Basin. The Food Bank of the Rockies brought approximately 17 tons of food (roughly 385 boxes, 85 pounds per box). All of it was distributed to families — either at the facility or via delivery to households identified by the county’s school resource officers.

Another food giveaway is planned for “the end of June or first part of July,” said Kampbell.

• Chad Lindsay, the county’s prevention specialist, said sites in Idaho, Colorado and Montana are sterilizing N-95 masks at no cost. The county plans to take advantage of this, he said, noting that with sterilization, the masks can be reused. Along with the new ones coming in, the county would then have a nice inventory, should the COVID-19 return in a second or third wave.

Blackburn said sterilizing and reusing the masks “gives us an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and stay ahead of the curve.”

• Lori Smallwood, the county clerk, provided an update on the special session of the legislature due to start May 15. As of Wednesday morning, eight bills were up for consideration. Lawmakers are planning to discuss how best to spend the $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief that was earmarked for Wyoming.

Amy Quick, the northwest regional director of the Wyoming Business Council, said lawmakers are going to consider three different relief programs that would run through the WBC. Priority would likely be given to businesses that haven’t already received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans. 

To follow along with the session, visit wyoleg.gov.

• Yellowstone National Park’s east entrance is scheduled to open for the season on Monday as part of a phased reopening plan. Travel will be restricted in the park to only the south and lower loops and there will be no overnight accommodations, nor will tour buses be allowed.

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