Public Health Officials: COVID-19 Inevitable in Teton County

When it comes to the coronavirus here in Wyoming, “it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when,’” said Jodie Pond, director of Teton County’s Health Department. Pond and Paul Beaupre, CEO of St. John’s Health, addressed…
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by | Mar 4, 2020 | COVID-19, Health, News

When it comes to the coronavirus here in Wyoming, “it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when,’” said Jodie Pond, director of Teton County’s Health Department. Pond and Paul Beaupre, CEO of St. John’s Health, addressed town and county officials on Monday about preparing for COVID-19.

Wyoming has yet to report a case of the illness, but Pond said health officials are concerned about certain local factors.

“We are an international travel destination, we have spring break right around the corner, where people are going to go far and wide and come back to our community, and we have many large community events.”

Teton County’s service-based economy is also a worry, Pond said. Folks who work for hotels, restaurants, and other businesses serving tourists don’t have the luxury of calling in sick for several days. And that’s a predicament for a lot of residents. According to Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division, nearly 50% of Teton County’s population works in the service, hospitality and retail industries.

“And so when we tell people to say home from work, what does that mean?” Pond asked.

Still, Pond stressed that local preparedness efforts are underway. The health department has a grant from the Centers for Disease Control for such work and it’s been ramping up its focus on the coronavirus.

On Friday, the health department hosted 30 people from different sectors of the community to discuss coronavirus preparation, Pond said. And as it happens, in January, the department also participated in a statewide pandemic flu exercise.

A key takeaway from that, Pond said, is “there are a lot of things we need to do as government to be more prepared.”

That means devising plans in the public and private sectors with the notion that more than 40% of the workforce could be off the job when we see cases of coronavirus in the area.

Folks in the service and retail industries are not the only ones who have few alternatives when it comes to staying home from work, said Arrianna Planey, a PhD candidate at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign focusing on health policy. Planey said the under- or uninsured are likely to continue working and forgo care because they cannot afford to do otherwise. For Americans, “access to healthcare and a lack of insurance coverage is a barrier, in addition to lack of paid sick leave to make up for the lost income,” she said.

Pond echoed that concern. The COVID-19 outbreak is exposing “the cracks in our national healthcare system,” she told KHOL.

According to Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division, 11% of Teton County residents are uninsured. Pond said it is unclear how much tests would cost for those folks. It’s also unclear what kind of bills people with insurance would incur. Tests are covered under Medicare and Medicaid, but Pond told KHOL it is “unknown” how much of the tab private insurers will pick up.

For those who exhibit symptoms and want to get tested, local providers will work with the Wyoming Department of Health to screen people. St John’s Beaupre told town and county officials Monday that the hospital is prepared.

“In our emergency departments, our OB department, our ICU, all staff members have been test-fitted, so they all have been taught the appropriate techniques for putting on personal protective equipment.”

Recently, Beaupre said the hospital assessed that preparedness. “We had a couple people in the community with appropriate travel history and symptoms that showed up in the emergency room,” he said.

Those folks were ultimately diagnosed with cases of influenza, not coronavirus. But Beaupre is confident the hospital has the necessary facilities to treat people who do have COVID-19, “an end-stage respiratory disease.”

“St. John’s has a myriad of capabilities to treat someone” with such an illness, he told local officials.

Preparing for the Inevitable

The town and county are working out plans with the health department in the event that a large portion of the local workforce can’t make it to their jobs.

Public health officials will recommend measures such as canceling community events once cases of the coronavirus are diagnosed locally, Pond said.

Public health officials say there are some things to keep in mind about COVID-19. For one thing, people can prevent transmission of the virus with simple measures. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, that’s as long as it takes to sing happy birthday to yourself from beginning to end twice. Avoid shaking hands with people. Instead, give them an elbow bump. And if you feel sick, try to stay home if possible.

It is those who have compromised immune systems and the elderly who are most impacted by COVID-19. The median age of people who have died from the virus is 75. A lot of other folks, meanwhile, may get the virus and not even know it. Those people need to be especially mindful that they could transmit COVID-19 to the vulnerable. And the number of cases we hear about will rise exponentially over the next few weeks simply because more and more locales are obtaining testing kits to diagnose the illness.

In the meantime, the Teton County Health Department is setting up a hotline with local updates on the coronavirus. That should be online by the end of the week.

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn launched KHOL's news department. She has worked as a reporter and editor in Wyoming for the last decade and her work has aired on NPR stations throughout the West. When she's not sweating deadlines, Robyn sustains her nomadic heart by traveling the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow @TheNomadicHeart

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