Dr. Wheeler Mark Gordon

Wyoming Medical Society President Dr. David Wheeler speaks during a press conference Monday, March 30, 2020, inside the state Capitol. Wheeler, joined by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, gave an update on Wyoming’s COVID-19 response and the future outlook for the spread of the virus in the state.

CHEYENNE – The original two-week order Gov. Mark Gordon issued that closed down most businesses has now been extended in Wyoming to April 17, and federally to April 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Gordon said if he were to issue a shelter-in-place order, it would be a true shelter-in-place order without multiple exemptions. He added that if local counties want to “raise to that level of concern,” they can.

“At this time, we are considering whether we want to extend our orders to correspond with President Trump’s,” Gordon said. “We are taking stock of the situation daily, and we’ll make recommendations as they become clearer.”

Dr. David Wheeler, a Casper-based neurologist and president of the Wyoming Medical Society, said it takes about three to six weeks for social distancing results to be seen when it comes to flattening the pandemic curve. It’s important to understand that once the peak of the curve is hit, social distancing standards can’t be relaxed, otherwise the number of cases will just increase again.

“It’s very important to understand that even once you hit the apex, you can’t then relax your social distancing standards. If you do that, it will immediately start to grow again, and all the hard work and sacrifice that we put in getting up to that point will be lost, and things will get much worse again,” Wheeler said. “So, we’re really looking at continuing social distancing fairly aggressively for the next six weeks or so, I would imagine, and then gradually beginning to relax over the next couple of months after that.”

Kyle Farley, executive director of HealthReach in Cheyenne, said at least from an urgent care perspective, they’ve definitely seen a decrease in the number of patient visits as a whole in the community. He said this is a telling sign that this is the effect of social distancing and people staying home.

He said he hopes this can continue to allow health care professionals and businesses to gather additional resources. He said there was a time when health care professionals were very limited on supplies, but the county and state have helped replenish their stock of supplies.

“I think we’ve all got to understand that this isn’t going to be a short-term solution, that we’re probably going to see this on an ongoing basis now,” Farley said. “You know you’ve heard from the Trump administration and from Governor Gordon that this isn’t going to be a two-week thing and it’s going to now be impacting us all the way through April.”

He said there isn’t a definite answer to how long these orders and social distancing must occur, but they need to continue for as long as it takes.

In Wyoming, as of Tuesday evening, there was a total of 96 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 21 confirmed cases in Laramie County. To date, the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory has conducted 1,389 COVID-19 tests, and the Wyoming Department of Health has received 544 test results from private labs, according to the department’s website.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, state health officer and epidemiologist with the state health department, said she wouldn’t be surprised if the number of confirmed cases grew to 100 by the end of the day.

“We know that there are more cases than we have detected,” she said. “There simply aren’t enough supplies for everyone to get tested. For most people in Wyoming who have a likely source of infection such as travel, or contact with a known case, there are others with an unknown source, meaning it is likely they acquired it in Wyoming through interactions with their communities. That means we’re talking about community spread.”

She added that if someone is sick, they need to stay home, except to get medical care. It’s also important, in general, to avoid large group gatherings and stay home whenever possible to avoid spreading and contracting the virus.

“The thing that makes this virus different is that it’s new,” Harrist said. “That means higher potential for quick spread around the world and around our country. Our bodies aren’t yet prepared to fight a new virus, and there are no vaccines or proven treatments yet available. So there can be more people sick at one time. All the things that Governor Gordon and I are asking you to do are meant to reduce the number of people sick at one time in Wyoming.”

Wheeler said he’s also encouraging health care providers to stop performing elective procedures at this time. He said these elective procedures are unnecessarily wasting personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic. He added the Medical Society is also encouraging health care providers to utilize telehealth whenever possible.

“If we wait until people start to show up in our emergency rooms gasping for breath, we have waited too long” Wheeler said. “If we do not act now, it is certain that we will use up all of the available resources for health care in our state in just a matter of weeks.”

Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, said she’s hoping the order extensions and continuation of social distancing measures will have a significant impact on the number of cases in Laramie County.

“The numbers in Cheyenne are growing at a pretty good clip,” Emmons said. “So, we really are hoping that this will make a difference. I think what people need to keep in mind is we have very few tools to use in dealing with this virus. It’s not like we have any kind of antiviral, we don’t have any medicine, we don’t have a vaccine. We’re really limited in what we can do, and this is probably the thing that will have the biggest impact is by just trying to get people to stay home.”

She said at this point, it’s too soon to tell if social distancing is making an impact. The reason it’s too soon to tell is because there were so many COVID-19 tests in the pipeline to be processed. Until those tests are processed, it’s going to be difficult to tell if there’s an impact.

There is also a testing supply shortage, and more testing supplies were just delivered last week – which will impact the COVID-19 data as well, Emmons said. As of right now, there are 2,800 test kits in the state, Emmons said.

“I mean, if we had more (it) would be great, but at least we know we’ll have that many more people being tested,” she said. “I do know the state’s working on creating another batch, so we definitely can use it.”

Gordon said at the news conference that Wyoming had received a second shipment of personal protective equipment from the strategic stockpile, and those supplies have been distributed across the state. According to the state Department of Health, as of last Thursday, in conjunction with the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security they had distributed 27,000 N95 masks, 34,450 surgical masks, 24,400 gloves, 1,728 face shields and 3,215 isolation gowns to counties and tribes in the state.

Emmons said Wyoming is lagging behind other states when it comes to the extent COVID-19 has spread, and that’s a good thing. She said this gives Wyoming a chance to look at what other people are doing to see the future based on what they’ve gone through.

It also gives Wyoming a chance to see what’s working for them, and avoid things that didn’t work, she said.

“At the same time, because of our small population, we’re severely limited in terms of hospital beds, equipment and manpower. If our doctors and nurses start falling ill – and this will happen – there will be no backup,” Wheeler said. “If we let this happen people die alone, without access to basic care, people suffering from everyday maladies like heart attacks, injured in car accident or coming in with appendicitis – they will die, too, because there will be no room for them in our hospitals.”

Wheeler said this is a grim outcome that Wyoming can avoid if Wyomingites start working together now to flatten the curve. The hospitals will have time to prepare, and fewer people will be sick at once to make sure hospitals don’t breach their capacity.

He said everyone is already being affected by this pandemic. He said businesses will fail, jobs will disappear, and goods and services will become more scarce.

“But these problems can only be made worse if we fail to act now to flatten the curve and limit the death toll,” Wheeler said.

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