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ROCK SPRINGS — The near-vertical increase in Wyoming coronavirus cases has medical, law enforcement and government officials concerned about the impact the resulting hospitalizations and deaths will have on the community, including our health care, education, industry, judicial system, and quality of life.

An educational meeting hosted Monday sought to update local leaders on the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sweetwater County, highlight where medical experts believe infections are headed, and spread the word about what can be done to reduce the spread, because an unmitigated outbreak will cost us businesses and lives. Other places around Wyoming are already overwhelmed, and listeners were warned it could easily happen here.

Sweetwater County just surpassed 1,000 cases of the coronavirus. On Saturday, Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County’s testing station reported 34% of the SARS-CoV-2 molecular tests conducted were positive for COVID-19, or 31 people. From Nov. 8-14, 31.5% of the molecular tests were positive, which equals 223 people.

As of Monday, five patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Rock Springs, County Health Officer Jean Stachon said. According to https://sites.google.com/wyo.gov/exec-covid19/hospital-resources, Sweetwater Memorial has four of its nine intensive care unit (ICU) beds filled.

Dr. Cielette Karn said we need to flatten the curve, or we are not going to be able to take care of the people who come to the hospital.

Dr. Melinda Poyer, chief medical officer at Sweetwater Memorial, said it is best to think of the fight against COVID-19 as a marathon, not a sprint, and realize “we don’t even have the finish line in sight.”

HOW TO LIMIT THE SPREAD

The general advice remains the same — wash hands, keep your distance, wear a mask, limit your travels, stay home when sick — and ignored by a portion of the population. Few tactics remain to convince people to do more to protect themselves and their neighbors.

Requests for voluntary compliance are going unheeded by some, so Dr. Jean Stachon, the Sweetwater County health officer, said she has requested a mask mandate. She said wearing a mask protects the wearers and the people they’re around. While waiting for the state health officer to decide whether it will be granted, Stachon admitted this is not the most effective argument. She believes the steadily rising number of serious cases and fatalities will eventually convince most holdouts to comply, but waiting will lead to more deaths. She said soon they won’t be nameless, faceless people on the nightly news, but our friends, neighbors and family.

“If they don’t believe we’re headed there, they will soon,” Stachon said.

Musing that she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, she said she decided to do what is right and request the mask requirement in Sweetwater County. Stachon added that she expects Gov. Mark Gordon to come out with stricter health orders soon, such as reducing the gathering sizes and possibly a statewide mask mandate, but for now he’s letting individual counties take the lead.

County health officers across the state, including Stachon, signed a letter asking Gordon to impose a mask mandate. Locally, the county health officer said she has support for the mask requirement from the Sweetwater school districts, Sweetwater Memorial and Southwest Counseling Service.

City and county officials discussed enforcement concerns, and how that could add burdens to the policing and judicial system. Sweetwater County Attorney Dan Erramouspe suggested municipalities could pass emergency enforcement that could come with fines for those who don’t comply. He said from a constitutional viewpoint, it would be better for the rules to come from an elected body that will be held accountable to the voters instead of the county health officer. Stachon encouraged the cities of Rock Springs and Green River to consider similar ordinances.

Green River Mayor Pete Rust said he was in favor of such an ordinance, though a decision would be up to the full council. He added they are working with businesses to better educate the public about safe practices and they should reach out to church and service groups to do more of the same.

Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo said the city is modeling good behavior by requiring masks in its facilities and regularly promoting personal responsibility.

Stachon said other areas that implemented mask requirements saw a marked improvement in mask wearing. She said even an improvement of 10% to 20% of the population masking up more would be seen as a win.

WHEN PEOPLE LET DOWN THEIR GUARD

There has been some success in limiting exposure. Sweetwater Memorial and the Castle Rock Medical Center noted that thanks to their mask policies, they haven’t seen any cases of infections spread from patient to provider or provider to patient. Similarly, Sweetwater County school districts are following state requirements for masks and said coronavirus cases appear to be resulting outside of classes.

Dr. Poyer says this shows masks work, in addition to the many studies reporting the same. She admitted that there is no 100% protection, but masks markedly decrease risk and are obviously better than wearing nothing.

Health officials said new cases are most likely resulting from small social gatherings, like birthday parties, hunting camps, and family and friends sharing meals — cases where people let their guard down and became exposed. Even if you wear a mask in public, it is possible to get infected at home if you take it off around other people who have been out in the community.

An example was given of a nurse who is homeschooling her children. She assists with contact tracing to help inform people of exposure, and her family has rarely ventured outside the home. However, a child went to practice for an upcoming event. Family members have since tested positive for the coronavirus, and the nurse said she believes this one-hour event is how her family was infected.

Even if new guidelines go into effect and compliance increases, Stachon warned coronavirus figures won’t immediately change. She predicted it will take at least two to three weeks to see an effect due to the incubation period and the time for more serious cases to develop.

“The holidays are going to be very different this year,” she warned.

Stachon acknowledged people are tired of safeguards and wanted this to be over by now, but sacrifices are still required for the greater good, though she said they aren’t asking very much.

Dr. Poyer said people should wear masks and follow other guidelines to keep our businesses open, to keep our hospital from being overwhelmed and to help each other. Halting the coronavirus will take all this, plus a vaccine that isn’t available yet.

Sweetwater County Public Health Director Kim Lionberger said that while there have been positive vaccine developments reported, we’re months away from it being publicly available. Vaccines are expected to go to health care workers first, and may require multiple doses. Lionberger predicted there won’t be anything for the general public until late spring or summer, at the earliest.

In the meantime, people are encouraged to follow the well-known health guidelines and do what they can to support local businesses, lobby lawmakers to offer extended financial relief, and be considerate neighbors.

While this won’t be easy, Dr. Poyer expressed confidence in the people’s ability to do the right thing.

“I believe in Sweetwater County,” she said.

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