ROCK SPRINGS – A new requirement that people wear masks when out in public in Sweetwater County to help limit the spread of the coronavirus went into effect on Tuesday afternoon. The mandate that was approved by the state health officer includes exceptions for minors and those with health issues. At a time when COVID-related infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are increasing, the goal is to curtail the outbreak and the cost it would otherwise inflict upon the community.
The Sweetwater County Board of Health met virtually on Wednesday morning. While the mask mandate was not on the agenda, Dr. Jean Stachon, the Sweetwater County health officer, spoke on the topic. She said that the county health officers in Wyoming sent a letter at the end of October to Gov. Mark Gordon requesting a statewide mask order. The governor has yet to issue such an order, so the health officers submitted their own requests to the state.
Stachon said she found out the Sweetwater County health order was approved Tuesday afternoon. In addition to Sweetwater County, Carbon, Natrona, Sweetwater, Sheridan, Park, Lincoln, Goshen, Sublette and Hot Springs counties had their requests approved Tuesday. Teton, Laramie and Albany counties already have mask orders in place. If requests from Washakie and Converse counties are approved, 14 Wyoming counties and the Wind River Reservation will have instituted local mask orders.
WHAT DOES THE LOCAL ORDER ENTAIL?
The order states, “It his hereby ordered that persons within Sweetwater County, Wyoming, shall wear a face covering in certain public settings.”
It defines “face coverings” as a covering made of cloth, fabric, or other soft or permeable material, without holes, that covers the nose, mouth, and surrounding areas of the lower face.
People are to wear masks outside their homes in circumstances such as being in line or inside any retail or commercial business or government facility that is open to the general public, including county or municipal buildings, but excluding state or federal buildings; when obtaining services or visiting health care operations, such as hospitals, clinics, dentists, pharmacies or veterinary facilities; or when in public transportation, taxi, or ride-sharing vehicle.
The mandate will be in effect through Dec. 4, or such as time as Dr. Stachon, with the state health officer’s approval, modifies or revokes the order.
Enforcement of the mandate will be up to local law enforcement. On Monday, health, law and government officials met to discuss the current and future impact of COVID-19 and the then-pending mask mandate. Stachon described the interaction as informative and positive.
During Monday’s meeting it was noted that even if there was a mask mandate in place, it could take at least two to three weeks to see a change in Sweetwater County’s rising cases. Due to the incubation period involved with the coronavirus – people may not become symptomatic for two to 14 days – delays are expected before people who are currently positive display symptoms and/or receive test results. There is also the question of how many people would adhere to the mask mandate in addition to other health guidelines including hand washing, distancing limiting travel and interaction, and staying home if sick. Dr. Stachon stressed at that meeting that the mask order is a temporary measure and will not be permanent.
TROUBLE KEEPING UP WITH THE WORKLOAD
Sweetwater County Public Health Director Kim Lionberger said Wednesday they are mobilizing more people to assist with coronavirus testing and contract tracing, but they are having trouble keeping up with the increased number of cases.
Some duties are being reassigned, such as informing people of their positive results, the expectations of people in quarantine or isolation and how they need to alert people who were in close contact. She added they are working hard to make sure local figures are accurate and do not include any duplicates.
“It’s sucking a lot of my time I should be spending on other responsibilities,” she said.
Lionberger said it became impractical for Dr. Stachon to contact 40 to 70 people a day to let them know they tested positive. The public health director estimated they are 48 to 72 hours behind in getting orders or information to active coronavirus cases.
She shared that she has earned dozens of hours of comp time and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to take it.
Board Member Kathy Luzmoor said she’s worried about Lionberger and the rest of the staff’s mental health as much as their physical health. She acknowledged that the department is stressed and overworked and encouraged them to take time off and occasionally get away.
“We don’t want to lose you,” Luzmoor said.
Dr. Stachon said, “Many of us are on the road to burnout.”
She added they, like everyone, wish the coronavirus would go away, but that’s not happening.
Health Board Chairman Donald West echoed those comments and said they know it’s not going away soon, even if they worked 24/7, so they need to time to take care of themselves. He admitted the work is harder with so many relying on them and also those who are getting upset with the staff.
“This isn’t going to go away magically,” West said.
Luzmoor also told the board that health workers serving in clinics or who have public contact are receiving hazard pay because they potentially have direct exposure to the coronavirus.
Medical companies are reporting positive developments in their vaccine trials, but at Monday’s meeting, Lionberger predicted there won’t be shots available to the general public until late spring or summer, at the earliest.
On Wednesday, she explained ongoing preparations, such as the ordering of an ultra-cold freezer that would be needed to store the Pfizer vaccine, which requires a temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius. While the Moderna vaccine only requires a temperature of minus 20 Celsius, Lionberger said they want to be prepared because “we won’t get to pick and choose which vaccine we will get.”
Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County also ordered an additional ultra-cold freezer, but Lionberger said demand is great and just because their order is supposed to ship at the end of November, there is no promise they will receive it. She cited additional orders for medical supplies that went unfulfilled.
SPREADING THE WORD
Ronda Zancanella said they are working with groups to developed a local campaign to promote healthier practices during the pandemic. Local industry is assisting with support and funding, and they plan to incorporate Sweetwater school children’s submissions from the Mask Up promotion.
She expressed hope more people will get on board thanks to messages from kids encouraging people to wear masks so they can stay in school and take better care of each other.
There were no public comments during the meeting, which ended with additional encouragement from Chairman West.
“Hang in there staff, hang in there Dr. Stachon,” he said.