EVANSTON — The Uinta County Commissioners held an emergency meeting on the morning of Friday, Nov. 20, to discuss the new public health orders, or mask mandate, issued in the county by Uinta County Public Health Officer Dr. Mike Adams and approved by Wyoming Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist.
While commissioners themselves were in their chambers at the Uinta County Complex, together with a few attendees, most people attended the meeting via Zoom videoconferencing. Commission Chair Eric South opened the meeting by explaining it was not the commissioners themselves issuing the mask mandate and that, by law, the commission has no control over such orders.
“We didn’t know about this ourselves until it was already in the works,” said South, who also noted “it’s a done deal.”
Commissioner Craig Welling asked Adams for some explanation of what the order is and how the decision to issue it was reached. Adams said the order basically amounts to “when in public you should wear a mask” and said the COVID-19 situation throughout the state and in Uinta County has worsened dramatically within the last month, with a 15-fold increase in the number of active cases in that time period.
According to Adams, local public health has three main priorities guiding decision making, including keeping K-12 students in school in person, protecting vulnerable populations and helping businesses stay open safely. Adams said, as of Friday, there were more than 200 students and approximately 30 staff members quarantined or isolated from various schools in the county.
Adams said they’re also focused on medical service provision and the impacts to staffing at Evanston Regional Hospital, Wyoming State Hospital, Rocky Mountain Care and other healthcare agencies throughout the county, which have been struggling with staff either isolated due to being sick themselves or quarantined due to exposure. He said there have also been impacts to first responders, with staff out from both the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office and the Evanston Police Department.
Adams said county health officers around the state have been in contact to discuss what measures could be implemented because of the escalating crisis throughout the state. Those same health officers sent a letter to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon last week requesting a statewide mask mandate; however, officers in 15 counties, including here, felt it was critical to take action right away, especially in light of the recent state health orders issued by Gordon that did not include a mask mandate.
“We never had any realistic hope that the hyper vocal minority would change their opinions or behaviors,” said Adams, recognizing that some people are staunchly opposed and have already expressed their intent not to abide by the order, “but this can make a substantial difference in people who will comply.”
He said he’s been tracking the situation in other communities with similar mandates and believes they have made a significant difference.
Adams said the order is in place for two weeks and then will be re-evaluated, although initially the request was to have the mandate in place until Jan. 4. He believes it will also help business owners who may have been trying to enforce mask rules in their establishments but did not have the rule of law to back up their efforts.
“Now if somebody refuses to comply, there is the potential to contact law enforcement to escort them out,” said Adams.
Commissioner Mark Anderson requested specific data points that were utilized to reach the decision, as well as data points that would be relied upon to determine if the mandate could be removed.
“We need to prove to the public that we have an emergency,” he said. “I think the public deserves that data before their rights are taken from them.”
Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said there are five metrics that are being used to assess the situation in the county. Those metrics include the daily number of new cases, the percent of cases attributed to community spread, the percentage of all tests that are returning positive, hospital and ICU capacity in both Uinta County and Utah hospitals and contact tracing capacity.
Proffit said all five of those metrics are at critical points. As of Friday, Proffit said there were 306 active cases in Uinta County. For comparison, a month earlier, on Oct. 16, there were 21. The percent of tests returning positive has been between 15-20% for the past couple of weeks, said Proffit, whereas the CDC said a percent positive of 3-5% is an indicator of adequate control.
Proffit also said there are a large number of people with confirmed infection reporting they have no idea where they got it, with no known exposures, indicating extensive community spread. She also explained that contact tracing has become exceedingly difficult simply because the number of new cases being reported each week makes it virtually impossible for her small staff to both speak with confirmed cases and track down all potential close contacts.
Finally, Proffit said hospital capacity is extremely concerning. She explained this doesn’t just mean the number of beds but also the availability of staffed beds, which is even more important. She said that ERH has had beds available, but it’s important to understand that the ICU at ERH isn’t capable of serving both COVID and non-COVID patients. The local hospital has created a COVID patient area separate from other patients, but if a COVID patient were to be in the ERH ICU it wouldn’t be able to be utilized for any non-COVID patients in need.
In addition, the major referring hospitals in Utah are reporting they are above 90% of capacity. “When a hospital gets above 85%, they are functionally out of beds from a staffing standpoint,” Proffit said. She and Adams said, as of yet, there haven’t been cases of local patients being denied transfer, but there have been issues with securing adequate care for those with heart issues, cancer or other illnesses.
“At this point, we could probably still find a bed for very serious cases,” said Adams, “but we don’t really know at what point that will stop.”
“I’m part of this county and I’m proud of that,” said Proffit, before issuing her plea. “We need your support. We need broad community action. Honestly, a mask mandate is probably the least restrictive action that can make a difference in this, and the evidence is overwhelming that masks work. … We don’t want to wait until somebody can’t be transferred or we have a disaster.”
Proffit likened it to the closure of I-80 in the winter, when the interstate is frequently closed before accidents occur. “We don’t wait until there have been wrecks; we do it to prevent them,” she said.
In response to Anderson’s query about data points that could be used to determine if heath orders could be eased, Proffit said getting to a point where less than 10% of tests are positive, less than 100 new cases a week are being reported and capacity in referring Utah hospitals is below 85% would be positive indicators.
“This is temporary,” Adams said. “The end is in sight, with vaccines on the way that could be a major game changer. Right now, the best data we have show the best chance we have is with masking and social distancing.”
Some of the data Adams and Proffit referenced included a scientific brief issued by the CDC on Friday on the efficacy of masks in reducing community spread. While some individuals who spoke during the commission meeting questioned the data on masking, the CDC brief includes the results of 45 peer-reviewed studies and concludes that “experimental and epidemiological data support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 … the relationship between source control and personal protection is likely complementary and possibly synergistic, so that individual benefit increases with increasing community mask use.”
While commissioners expressed their thanks for the work of public health throughout the pandemic, all three commissioners, Evanston Mayor Kent Williams and Lyman Mayor Bronson Berg expressed a feeling of being “blindsided” by the order and questioned why they were not at least informed the order was coming.
“You talk of needing greater support from the community, well, this isn’t the way to get it,” said Williams. “That the elected officials were not at the very least given a heads-up is troubling.”
“It’s not that I’m necessarily against mask mandates,” said Berg, “but we need data and better communication.”
Adams conceded he could have done a better job of communication and didn’t really provide an explanation as to why he hadn’t reached out other than a feeling that time was of the essence and taking quick action was critical.
As the meeting concluded, South said, “I don’t buy it, myself,” as he explained he feels there’s been government overreach on many levels throughout the pandemic and this action in particular. “There needs to be something done but that will have to be legislatively. We have no authority.”
Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas said that, to this point, her office has not prosecuted anyone for violation of health orders; however, she said, despite some rumblings to the contrary, the orders and the mask mandate are, in fact, laws.
The emergency commission meeting was followed by Proffit’s weekly COVID-19 public health update, during which data and numbers from the week are shared on a regular basis. While elected officials have often attended the weekly meetings that have been held for months, it did not appear as if any current members of the Uinta County Commission or other elected officials were on that call, based on the on-screen list of attendees.
During that meeting, Proffit said folks in healthcare have been accused of using fear to control people; however, she believes it would be irresponsible for those in healthcare not to tell people the reality of what is happening.
“Things have changed very quickly,” she said, particularly emphasizing the impacts on healthcare workers locally. “There’s a lot of burnout and exhaustion and with so many staff out at different facilities people are stretched very, very thin. I get the sense that it wouldn’t take much at this point for something to snap.”
While Gov. Gordon’s latest orders did not include a statewide mask mandate, they did dramatically decrease limits on gatherings. Indoor gatherings are limited to 25 individuals with no restrictions or up to 25% of capacity or 100 people maximum with masking and distancing. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 50% of capacity or 250 people maximum. In light of those orders, Uinta County School District No. 1 has announced that spectators will no longer be allowed at any events, home or away, until further notice.
While Proffit reported 306 active cases in Uinta County on Friday, as of press time that number had increased to 355.