On the heels of Gov. Mark Gordon’s announcement to reopen some businesses, Teton County has enacted directives to keep them closed until May 11.
Those businesses include gyms and fitness centers, nail and hair salons, barbershops, cosmetology, electrology and esthetic services, massage therapy, and tattoo and piercing shops.
“It’s not a time to let our guard down,” Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton District health officer, said in a press release. “We’re urging everyone in Teton County to err on the side of caution, especially those who may have more frequent interaction with others or are at higher risk.”
The county order does not affect childcare facilities and daycares, which can reopen or continue to operate under the state’s modified directives if certain cleaning and safety measures are followed.
Riddell based his decision on metrics outlined by the state. They include the number of lab-confirmed positive cases, the attack rate (or per capita infection rate), the test-positivity rate (or percentage of people tested whose results have come back positive), the number of patients admitted to St. John’s Health, and current testing numbers.
Jodie Pond, director of Teton County Health Department, said Jackson’s metrics are notably higher than other parts of Wyoming. She is particularly concerned with the county’s per capita infection rate.
Teton County, with 65 confirmed cases, has a per capita infection rate of 277 cases per 100,000 people. For comparison, Fremont County, with 102 cases—the highest in the state—has a per capita infection rate of 213 cases per 100,000. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s per capita infection rate is 69.
“Among more than 3,000 counties in the United States, Teton County ranks in the top 100 for per capita infection rate,” Pond said. “If you took our probable cases into account that rate would be even higher.”
The test-positivity rate is also steep in Teton County. That means “you’re not testing enough,” Pond said.
Teton County’s rate is 9.4 percent, more than double the statewide rate. When the county was still climbing the epidemic curve, it was at 14 percent. “You want a positivity rate that is low because that means you’re throwing a wide net and catching not just the sickest people in your community,” Pond said.
“Among more than 3,000 counties in the United States, Teton County ranks in the top 100 for per capita infection rate.”
Testing shortages, one of the key barriers to containing the new coronavirus, have impacted test-positivity rates all over the country. The national test-positivity rate is a staggering 20 percent. STAT News’ Sharon Begley put that number into perspective.
“Epidemiologists estimate that for infectious diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis, if more than 3 percent of people test positive, then the net is not being cast wide enough,” Begley wrote. But according to the World Health Organization, Teton County could be close. The WHO says a rate “below 10 percent reflects adequate testing.”
Now that testing capacity is changing, Pond is hopeful Teton County’s rate will diminish. In the past, Teton County could only test people who met specific criteria as outlined by the Wyoming Department of Health, such as high-risk populations and those who were exposed to someone with COVID-19. But the testing landscape here has shifted dramatically. Now Teton County Health Department is encouraging people with only “mild symptoms” to pick up a voucher for a free COVID-19 test.
Notably, Teton County could be “headed down the other side” of the epidemic curve, Pond said. That’s why officials are allowing the county’s stay-at-home measure to expire May 1. In its place, people must follow a state order limiting gatherings to less than 10 until May 15. “That is a positive we see—that we can ease that restriction,” she said.
Still, Pond struck a cautious tone.
The recent plateau in COVID-19 cases—the county has reported just six new positives in the last two weeks—doesn’t mean people should let their guards down or stop wearing masks, Pond said. Until there is a vaccine, “if you can’t maintain six feet of distance, whether that’s in your workplace or the grocery store, people should wear masks.” Pond said that measure will be central to “keeping our infection rates down.”
A slowdown in cases had some folks hoping the town could be inching closer toward a phased reopening. Gordon’s announcement Tuesday amplified that optimism. Now, some affected business owners are having a tough time processing the news that their businesses are still on hold.
Esthetician Krista Hahlbohm Poluga opened her business Glow in 2019, pouring her savings and many hours of manual labor into remodeling her new Wilson location. She had long worked in salons and spas and Glow marked a milestone—it was her first experience calling the shots and being her own boss.
Since COVID hit and she stopped working, Poluga has been struggling to stay above water. She struck out with an SBA loan and is still awaiting a stimulus check. In the meantime, she said she is trying to apply for unemployment.
When Poluga learned Gordon was lifting restrictions that would allow her business to reopen, she picked up her phone and began calling back anxious clients and booking appointments for May 1. “I am in a tight financial situation and it will take time to recover,” she said Tuesday after the governor’s announcement. “With no income for six weeks, I have no choice but to reopen.”
The prospect of reopening was a lifeline amid turbulent waters. Now she’s calling clients back, canceling those appointments and hoping she can hold on a little longer.