Teton County Health Officials Seek Action in Response to Rising Hospitalization Rate

They also asked for a unified message from elected officials.
As of Tuesday, the ICU at St. John’s is full. Forty staff members are out either due to COVID symptoms or contact exposure. (jeshoots/Unsplashed)

Mayor Pete Muldoon called a special town council meeting Tuesday morning in response to an email from St. John’s Health CEO Dr. Paul Beaupré about the dire COVID-19 situation at the hospital.  

“My concern is the following. Right now, our ICU is full,” Beaupré said. “We actually have one bed in the ICU. I have 40 staff members out right now, 21 of those are COVID positive. The rest are out for quarantine because of first contact exposures.” 

Beaupré also said that surrounding hospital systems are seeing spikes in hospitalizations, and are not as available to take patients from Teton County, if necessary. If the curve is not flattened soon, Beaupré says St. John’s could struggle to provide care to all who need it. 

“We used to be concerned back in the spring if we had 50 positive cases in a week,” he said. “Last Thursday, we had 70 cases in a day of COVID. And I can assure you that these are not cases that are coming to us from outside the community. So really, the purpose of my plea to all of you is to increase awareness.”

Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond echoed Beaupré’s concerns, and added that her staff is strained by contact tracing. She said the county is likely to consider further ordinances moving forward. 

“We should not have close contact sports going on at this moment,” Pond said. “We should look at returning to some of the orders back in the spring that limited the group size in gym classes, restaurant capacity, et cetera, before going to full shutdown. A lot of those mitigation measures worked, and we should look at those more closely and ask for a variance.”

The County has already extended its mask order as of Tuesday. Now, masks are required in all business and office settings, not just retail and restaurants. Plus, everyone over the age of 12 must wear a mask. The START bus also has new restrictions limiting capacity, and is requiring more than just a neck gaiter as face protection during the winter season. Pond said all this should help, but she worries that local ordinances don’t have the teeth to carry consequences. In other words, the county ordinances and recommendations may only amount to emphatic messages.

“We are still struggling with enforcement,” Pond said. “We still are getting complaints of our current orders, and I think enforcement is something that we need to look at in other areas. In other areas of the country, they have fined the business for not enforcing the mask orders or the current public health order. So I think that is something that should be on the table.” 

Muldoon said that he trusts his health officials to make policy decisions over himself or others, and hopes any variances on the county level are accepted by the state this week. He also recognized, though, that working with the state can mean delays, and time is of the essence. 

“I would say in an ideal world, over the next 48 hours or a week or so, the council doesn’t have to do anything,” Muldoon said. “I don’t think anyone on the council wants to go the route of emergency ordinances. I believe we all agree that a public health order that covers the entire county is a much better route. But we will take the action that we have to take.”

During the meeting, Dr. Riddell raised a concern about people abusing the medical exemption to masks. As it stands, the mask ordinance has a loophole:  One current loophole in the mask ordinance is that any person can say, when asked to wear a mask, any person can say that they have a health issue keeping them from doing so. Muldoon says he could pass an ordinance that is slightly stricter than current state restrictions, which would require someone within Jackson to show documentation with a valid health reason for keeping a mask off. He also says a lack of national or statewide messaging and action has put these difficult policy decisions, which have major economic and social ramifications, in the hands of local officials. Therefore, he’s constrained with what he can do both financially and legally. 

“As that curve starts to increase, mortality rates are going to go up because we just won’t be able to treat people,” Muldoon said. “So that’s my fear. And, you know, we are likely going to have an influx of tourists this winter. It’s scary. What I’m worried about is that people will die or that people will have a disease progression that will lead them to long-term disabilities.”

The rise of cases in Teton County as of November 29. Data is courtesy of the Teton County Health Department. (Screenshot)

Muldoon was not the only concerned member of the town council. In fact, some members wanted immediate action, namely Jim Stanford.

“When you look at the case numbers in Teton County and you compare our rates of infection with many of our peer communities around the West—resort communities that have a lot in common with us—Teton County in recent weeks has exceeded the rates of our peer communities,” Stanford said. “We’ve been two or three times the rates of those communities. Twice the rate of Routt County, Colorado. Any steps we can take, I’m willing to take and take now. Asking for personal responsibility is failing.”

While the town waits for further direction from health officials, area restaurants, gyms, and bars remain open. Meanwhile, the Teton County Health Department launched a campaign aimed at younger residents, called “Shred the Spread,” that stresses the severity of the virus and how it could impact them. Muldoon said the overall public message is clear. 

“If there’s one message to come out for the public about the meeting that we had today, it’s that this is bad. We’re in a bad place,” he said. “We’ve got to do something. We cannot keep acting as we did two months ago—three months ago—where we felt like we can relax a little. This is time to really, really buckle down and watch out for our community’s health .”

Muldoon also urged the public to trust health officials, who are doing their part in the “impossible” task of weighing public health policies against personal liberties and economic impacts. The town has another COVID-19 update scheduled for this Friday at 3:00 p.m. Tune in to KHOL to listen in live.

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About Will Walkey

Will is KHOL's first full-time 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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