Masks—and Overburdened Healthcare Workers—are Here to Stay
The Teton County Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to extend Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell’s mask order through the end of December. This follows a similar decision by the Jackson Town Council earlier this week. The vote ended up being tight, with Commissioners Greg Epstein and Mark Barron opposing the mandate. But Board Chair Natalia Macker broke the tie, arguing that it, along with vaccinations, staying home when sick, and other mitigation methods, can make a difference in lowering case numbers and hospitalizations in Teton County.
“I hear our health professionals asking to deploy a tool that is not the single cure-all, but it is part of the tools in the toolbox that are a multilayered approach,” Macker said. “And I support giving them that tool and giving the community that tool and hope that we see our numbers go down and the masks able to come off.”
Masks will come off before December if Teton County’s COVID risk level is lowered to the “low” or “new normal” risk level. In the meantime, face coverings are now required, with exceptions, in all businesses, government buildings, hospitals, public transportation vehicles and K-12 schools.
This decision also follows a COVID-19 community update on Wednesday, where Riddell said Jackson Hole is heading “in the wrong direction” in the fight against the Coronavirus. Case averages countywide are the highest they’ve been since the end of last year, and hospitalizations and super-spreader events across the Cowboy State have caused labor shortages and mass quarantines in several public school districts. Mary Ponce is Director of Critical Care Services at St. John’s Hospital and said nurses and other staff there are reaching a breaking point.
“They’re extremely physically and mentally exhausted. Some have already reached their threshold and have left healthcare for these reasons,” Ponce said. “We are at risk of others leaving as we speak. And for many reasons, we know that these wonderful and caring nurses will be extremely difficult to replace.”
Over the past two weeks, Ponce said St. John’s has seen an average of one new COVID-19 patient needing hospitalization each day, and transferred several people with severe symptoms to Idaho Falls or Salt Lake City. Ninety-two percent of those in the intensive care unit are unvaccinated.
“I have witnessed staff going home crying due to health or due to death and devastation that they are seeing on a daily basis with the frustration that this is avoidable if their patients would have been vaccinated,” Ponce said. “They continue to ask, why aren’t more of the public getting vaccinated? How long are our health care workers going to have to deal with being at their breaking point?”
Remembering a Fallen Local Marine
The Jackson community continues to mourn the loss of the young local Marine Rylee McCollum, who was killed in the airport attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week shortly before the full withdrawal of American forces.
Pam Coleman met McCollum a few weeks into his senior year, when he transferred to Teton County Schools’ alternative high school. Coleman is the school counselor and a social worker there, and she said McCollum was struggling to find motivation as a full-time student. That changed around the time he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after his 18th birthday.
“That’s where his commitment toward completing school came from,” Coleman said. “He realized he needed to complete high school, and we worked together—myself and his recruiting officer—to [get him to] complete high school and graduate.”
Coleman said McCollum’s loss has shaken the school community, especially as the news came right before the first day of school. She also doesn’t just want the 20-year-old Marine to become a symbol of a tragic end to America’s longest war.
“I think I really want him to be remembered for kind of who he was, which was the kid who would stick up for somebody. Who was the kid who was really smart, quick-witted, strong in body, mind, and just this Wyoming kid who was just trying to find himself in the world,” Coleman said.
As one of the last American troops killed in Afghanistan, McCollum leaves behind a wife and soon-to-be-born baby. Two GoFundMe campaigns set up to benefit the family have raised more than $614,000 as of press time.
Honing in on Equity
The Jackson Town Council moved forward on a number of long-term initiatives at their meeting Monday, including establishing a task force on equity in Jackson Hole. Though a lot is still up in the air in terms of exactly what the task force will do, its purpose was loosely defined by councilwoman Jessica Sell Chambers as advising the town on diversity and inclusion strategies and strengthening connections among diverse segments of the community, including those with lower incomes and people of color.
“We need to make sure that there is a welcoming place to examine all of our policy decisions and focus from this standpoint, and I think this is a great first step in order to get voices that have not traditionally been welcomed or who have had access to our local government processes,” Chambers said.
In a presentation outlining the goals of the Equity Task Force, numerous town officials brought up recent data ranking Teton County once again as the most unequal county in the United States. Asset income—or money being made from other money, such as investments—tops $160,000 on average. That’s more than anywhere else in the nation, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
Telluride Pauses Short-Term Rentals
The town council of Telluride, Colorado, voted last week in support of a six-month moratorium on new short-term rental licenses. They passed the emergency ordinance to give time to further research the impacts of short-term rentals on the area and depressurize tension ahead of a November election expected to focus heavily on housing.
The move comes amid an unprecedented number of new license applications. Town officials say there have been about 40 since the start of August. According to Telluride Mayor DeLanie Young, that’s much higher than the average of seven.
“I’d say that’s pretty much a land rush on STR (short-term rental) licenses,” Young said.
The emergency ordinance effectively caps the number of short-term rental licenses in circulation until February 2022. Several other Colorado mountain towns, including Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs, have made similar moves to temporarily restrict short-term rental growth as they also struggle with housing shortages and a surge in local tourism.
Matt Hoisch of KOTO in Telluride, Colorado contributed reporting to this story.