Rise in COVID Cases Takes its Toll on Teton County

Hospital workers, contact tracers, and some business owners are acutely affected by the recent spike in infections.
Teton County health officials are pleading with the public to do their part to help flatten the curve (Shutterstock).

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic is putting a strain on healthcare workers and many businesses in Teton County. And if case numbers continue to rise, many folks may reach a breaking point. Now, officials are pleading with community members to snap out of their COVID fatigue. 

There were 149 active cases of the coronavirus in Teton County as of Thursday, and those numbers keep steeply rising. However, the local hospital system hasn’t been overwhelmed yet, according to St. John’s Health CEO Dr. Paul Beaupré

We’re still fortunate in that we’re not seeing an overwhelming number of people who are dealing with it in the community getting sick enough that they’re requiring hospitalization,” he said.

Fifty-four percent of hospital beds are still available at St. John’s. But Beaupré said that doesn’t paint a full picture of the strain on Teton County’s healthcare system. Patients who tested positive for COVID-19 used to stay at least two weeks in the hospital on average. Now, improvements in treatment methods have brought that down to five to seven days. That is a positive development, Beaupré said, but he also noted that a high turnover as a result of this trend also takes a toll on his employees. Checking new patients in and out at higher rates requires going through tiresome sanitation and treatment protocols more frequently, and it stresses planning departments and support staff. 

“My staff is exhausted,” he said. “I’ve never seen this level of burnout in the last four and a half years I’ve been here.”

Winter tourism is also coming up, and that concerns Beaupré. His hospital still needs to attend to major incidents like heart attacks, and he’s expecting a normal rise in hospitalizations from skiing accidents and increased vehicle collisions. 

Beaupré said it’s crucial that coronavirus hospitalizations stay at their current rates, unlike what’s happening in the rest of Wyoming. Thursday saw a record 192 COVID hospitalizations statewide, and local officials worry that this may foreshadow Teton County’s future. The county is currently classified as in the “red,” at 99.2 cases per 100,000 people.

At that level of penetrance, it’s going to become harder and harder for us to protect those people that are vulnerable,” Beaupré said. “And that’s simply because the incidence in the community is so high that, everywhere you go, you’re getting exposed.”

Confirmed COVID-19 cases by county of residence. Numbers courtesy of the Wyoming Department of Health. (Screenshot)

A Declining Ability to Keep Track of Cases

Virus infection rates are also overwhelming local contract tracers. The Teton County Health Department is no longer conducting full case investigations, as they’ve done previously. Director Jodie Pond said those that test positive for COVID-19 will still receive a call, but it might be delayed. 

“We’re stretched really thin. We don’t get to every single person,” she said. “When you have 30 and 40 people that are positive every day, it’s just a sheer volume we can’t keep up with.” 

Pond has a number of theories for why Teton County is seeing such a spike in cases. For one, the entire region is in the red, and the virus is inevitably spreading through travel to Utah, Idaho, Montana, and the rest of Wyoming. The second, more concerning reason, she said, is COVID fatigue.

People aren’t wearing masks in those small social settings,” she said. “People aren’t wearing masks in the workplace…there are a lot of other places that people aren’t wearing masks when they’re in public or outside of their home.” 

Now, Pond is trying to spread the message that the community and her staff is nearing a breaking point, and that it’s up to local residents to slow this spread so that further restrictions aren’t necessary. 

We have to think more holistically about our community. We have to think about each other, our friends, our neighbors, and the economic well-being of our community,” she said. “Please do the things we’re asking everybody to do. They’re simple. Wear a mask and don’t congregate.” 

A graph tracking the number of new coronavirus cases per day in Teton County from August 1 to November 9. Data courtesy of the Teton County Health Department. (Screenshot)

A Toll on Local Business

Anna Olson is President and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. She says that certain businesses, like liquor stores and bike shops, have actually thrived this year during the pandemic. However, other businesses, particularly gyms, restaurants, and retail stores, are going through difficult times. Now there is uncertainty about the winter tourism season, and Olson is concerned for the wellbeing of her members. 

A sign at a local clothing store asking for patrons to “mask up.” (Will Walkey/KHOL)

There is definitely a concern that less people will travel this winter with the cases going up,” Olson said. “The hesitation to book is very real.”

Low case numbers are important for Jackson commerce, and not just because it keeps stay-at-home orders and stricter business closures from being enacted. Maintaining consumer confidence is imperative, and this summer was a model for success. Tourism to the region reached record numbers, and Olson says the county needs to be able to replicate that this winter.

We’ve proven we can manage through this with a lot of people here, but we need to continue to behave and follow all the protocols,” she said. 

Even following protocols, there are different factors at play in the winter when visitors will spend more time indoors than in the summer. The intersection of COVID and winter is uncharted territory across the globe. 

Potential for Renewed Restrictions

Anna Olson called mask ordinances “no brainers” in order to keep case numbers down and the economy flowing. And Teton County has had a mask ordinance since July. But the rest of the state hasn’t seen it as a no brainer, with only a few counties enacting orders this week. Even Teton County’s ordinance only covers retail, large gatherings over 50 people, restaurants, schools, and some other locations. County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said that may have to change soon. 

If we don’t see that flattening of the curve, we would be implementing additional measures,” he said. “And those could include further reducing group gathering, or adding the mask mandate to potentially other locations…And then the stay-at-home order that we had back in the spring unfortunately has to remain on the table.”

Teton County’s infection rate is better than much of the rest of Wyoming, and so the county is waiting for a potential order from Governor Mark Gordon later this week before making any moves. More than 1,600 people have signed a petition urging Governor Gordon to enact a mask mandate in all public spaces. 

Given the imminence of that decision, it makes sense to first see what the order is and then evaluate that to determine whether we need to go through what has proven to be an arduous process of making rules locally,” Riddell said. 

Getting approval from the state to enact additional measures requires back and forth discussion between health officials, politicians, and lawyers. This process can take days to weeks, as it did earlier this summer. Riddell says additional measures may not be necessary if people just hunker down in the next few weeks and follow the state’s guidelines, no matter how fatigued they are. 

This is not how I expected to be spending my 2020 either. It is getting old for everyone, me most of all. But my personal feelings or personal fatigue on this matter, unfortunately, aren’t important,” he said. “The virus is not at a point where we are ready for a return to normalcy quite yet.”

Riddell said he’ll start getting really concerned if hospitalizations go up, and if St. John’s begins to get overwhelmed. That’s currently happening nationally. And tragically, that’s inevitably leading to more deaths. 

It’s not all gloom and doom. Riddell said recent news about potential vaccines from earlier this week gives him real hope. For the first time in a while, he sees a light at the end of the tunnel. He just hopes that people being sick of the virus doesn’t lead to more people getting sick.  

A community coronavirus update featuring Teton County health officials is scheduled for this Friday at 3:00 p.m. Tune in to KHOL to listen live. 

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About Will Walkey

Will is KHOL's newest reporter and producer. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, he recently graduated from Columbia University with a Master's Degree in journalism. He likes to read and write about housing, local politics, and history, and spends most of his free time fishing or biking. He's excited to be living in Wyoming, and looks forward to honing in on his unique radio voice by highlighting the locals that make Jackson special. Contact Will with tips at will@jhcr.org, and follow him on Twitter at @WillWalkey.

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