Concerns over the coronavirus prompted elected officials to cancel two annual events that have historically drawn tens of thousands of people to Jackson Hole.
Jackson Town Council and the Board of Teton County Commissioners unanimously voted on Thursday to withdraw permits for the Annual World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb and Rendezvous Festival. Elected officials also revoked a permit for a snowmobile freeride event by Octane Addictions, slated for Hill Climb weekend, and the Quarter Cookout, an event for Cornerstone Church.
“We estimate approximately 15% of our population is in the high-risk category, and it is up to all of us, individuals, families, organizations and businesses to all do our part to protect that population and slow transmission,” said Natalia D. Macker, chair of the Board of Teton County Commissioners.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high-risk people include older adults and those who have chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease. Canceling large events is among the recommendations issued by federal officials to protect such individuals and slow the spread of the pandemic COVID-19.
Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson pointed to direction from Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force. Fauci recommends “crowds should not gather,” she said.
To that end, Morton Levinson noted that one measure effective against COVID-19 is extreme social distancing. Simply put, social distancing means avoiding areas where people congregate, mass gatherings, and maintaining approximately six feet from others when possible. The vice mayor pointed to the success of that measure: “Once governments imposed social distancing in infected areas in other places in the world, the number of new cases has leveled off.”
People who testified ahead of the vote signaled their support for taking actions that could limit a coronavirus outbreak, one which health officials say is certain to arrive in Jackson Hole. State guidelines suggest waiting until a case is confirmed here before taking measures such as canceling events. By then, however, “it will be too late,” said Rich Ochs, emergency coordinator for Teton County.
Members of the business community were also supportive of the move. Anna Olson, president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, says the valley’s economic vitality is inextricably linked to tourism. That, however, doesn’t mean businesses should abdicate their responsibility, she said.
“We know that there will be an outbreak and we are responsible for its containment and slowing, and we know with limited healthcare facilities and a vulnerable population that the traveling public is very much a component of this.”
Olson also framed proactive measures taken today as ways to hopefully bring about a strong summer tourism season.
“The critical booking months for the summer season are still ahead of us—end of March, April and May,” she said. “A short-term decision to cancel gatherings that encourage the mixing of local and visitor populations could slow the spread and reduce our community’s exposure.”
“A proactive public health action” now could mitigate long-term economic turmoil, Olson said.
Megan Gallagher, director of the Jackson Hole Food and Wine festival, was on the same page. That morning, she said the festival pro-actively canceled all its events scheduled for this weekend.
“We know that there will be an outbreak and we are responsible for its containment and slowing.”
– Anna Olson, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce
No local cases of COVID-19 have been reported yet. And if all this pandemic talk has your throat itching, it’s important for folks to keep in mind that there is a “tremendous outbreak” of influenza B in the community. Dr. Paul Beaupre, CEO of St. John’s Health, says that is, of course, “not helpful at all.” He said high instances of the flu “clouds the decision-making around this since we don’t have good testing for COVID-19.” The flu vaccine does not protect against the strain of influenza that’s making its rounds through the valley, Beaupre said.
When it comes to COVID-19, Beaupre said, “realistically, it’s probably here already. We’re just not testing for it.”
Mayor Pete Muldoon echoed Beaupre’s concerns about the unknown. “I know we don’t have a confirmed case in Teton County yet, but we have done very little testing and I don’t think that is the right trigger.” The mayor said waiting for a diagnosis would limit the government’s ability to effectively respond to an outbreak.
Bracing for an Outbreak
First responders told local officials they have limited supplies (such as masks needed to respond to certain calls) and resources both for public events and to address an outbreak.
Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith says he is understaffed by four officers, not to mention police who are sick or away on trainings.
“Take COVID-19 out of the equation, we have police-related matters every day, we have people who overdose, we have fights, we have thefts, we have all of those things so just trying to police regular things—this is a challenge on top of that.”
For his part, Beaupre last week assured elected officials the hospital had the ability to address COVID-19 cases. But given the number of cases that have sharply risen throughout the country in the last week, Beaupre is not so confident anymore.
“There is a very real possibility that if this disease comes into this community with 15% of our population being elderly, we could get into a situation where we are making very difficult life decisions because we don’t have the equipment to care for all of them.”
The meeting Thursday drew dozens of people to town chambers. Given the subject matter, the folks packed into town hall presented some irony. One of the key strategies to containing the virus, after all, is social distancing.
There were a few shared laughs and looks over that.
The Wyoming Department of Health confirmed Wyoming’s first case of the coronavirus on March 11. The patient is a woman from Sheridan County with domestic travel history. But, Jodie Pond, of Teton County Health, says local officials are more concerned about cases in certain parts of neighboring Utah and Colorado that are geographically closer or represent areas that draw more visitors to the valley.
The Utah Department of Health has reported five cases, including diagnoses in Ogden and Park City. Meanwhile, Colorado has counted 45 cases. Pitkin County, home to Aspen, which is sometimes likened to Jackson Hole for its population size and tourist economy, has reported 10 cases, according to Colorado’s Department of Public Health.
In Jackson, St. John’s Health has set up a hotline for people with symptoms. The hospital has multiple vans on the prowl that are administering both influenza and COVID-19 tests to such folks. But Beaupre says the state of Wyoming is only processing five tests per day.
With that in mind and to assist public health officials in keeping vulnerable populations safe, if you’re feeling ill and think you may have the coronavirus, Beaupre recommends that you refrain from visiting your clinician. Instead, first call St. John’s Health’s hotline: 307-739-4898.
Teton County Health also has a line it is updating daily with local news. That number is 307-732-8628.