Gov. Gordon says stricter health orders imminent as COVID-19 crisis worsens

Community members in their vehicles line up outside Evanston Regional Hospital to get tested for COVID-19. (HERALD PHOTO/Kayne Pyatt)

EVANSTON — New restrictions are coming soon due to the explosion in COVID-19 cases in Wyoming. Gov. Mark Gordon made clear at a press conference on Friday, Nov. 13, that new public health orders are forthcoming by the end of the week and they will be more restrictive than what’s currently in place.

A visibly angry and emotional Gordon said all options are on the table to deal with the pandemic crisis and the associated strains on healthcare throughout the state, including a statewide mask mandate. Gordon said hospitals are overwhelmed and healthcare systems are under the most strain they’ve experienced since the pandemic began last spring.

He said Wyoming has the fifth highest transmission rate in the country and is surrounded by states also experiencing overwhelming surges of infection, meaning hospitals typically utilized for the transfer of critical Wyoming patients are overloaded themselves and may not be accepting transfers.

“All of this spells trouble for our citizens,” he said.

Gordon described himself as angry and said, “We are being knuckleheads about this.” He specifically referenced the number of deaths and infections that have occurred in residents of nursing homes and other senior living facilities, which are occurring at the same time as concern grows about those same residents suffering from isolation and lack of visitation. Steps have been taken in the past several months to allow for more visitation, but with that comes increased risk.

Saying that the situation in Wyoming is at a “fever pitch,” Gordon said, “Every piece of information that is conveyed, somebody comes up with some other bogus piece of information to try to disprove it. So I’m going to ask you to go to yourself and ask yourself, do you feel better today about what’s going on in this state than you felt maybe in June or July or August when we were one of the lowest states for infection rates.”

Gordon continued, “We were one of three states that could have a state fair. We had a carnival going. Do you think we can do that now without running a risk on everything? Our capacities are overwhelmed. It’s time that Wyoming woke up and got serious about what it’s doing.”

Gov. Gordon said he’s been overwhelmed with letters from business owners, trona miners and more, concerned about the rapidly increasing infection rate and the impacts of illness on businesses statewide. He said businesses are suffering more losses now due to sick or quarantined employees than due to public health closures that took place in the spring, noting that businesses have no choice but to close if their workforce is sick.

He also referenced the CARES Act funding that Wyoming has been utilizing to help small businesses survive given the losses associated with the pandemic, noting that the CARES Act funding runs out at the end of 2020 and “there isn’t anything on the horizon” from the federal government to continue to help businesses survive after that.

“As your Governor, I’m very concerned about what we do to see businesses survive through this winter. I’ve asked a number of businesses if they feel like they’re going to make it through this next year, and I’ve got to tell you people, there isn’t a heck of a lot of hope out there.”

“We have to get our head in the game,” he said, “and we haven’t got our head in the game. We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off.”

Gordon referenced data from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which has said 18 of Wyoming’s 23 counties are at critical status. That status is perhaps part of why the county public health officers of 20 counties, including Uinta County’s Dr. Mike Adams, have sent a letter to Gordon requesting a statewide mask mandate to help combat the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Wyoming Department of Health Director Mike Ceballos also spoke and explained that the transmission is occurring throughout communities in all areas of the state, often through gatherings of family and friends in homes. “It’s literally everywhere,” he said. “It’s so pervasive there’s not a place that we’re not seeing it.”

However, both Gordon and Ceballos emphasized one place that they’re not seeing a lot of transmission is in schools, which has largely been attributed to the school mask requirements. A similar claim was echoed by Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit and Uinta County School District No. 1 Superintendent Ryan Thomas during a weekly county COVID-19 update that took place just after Gordon’s press conference.

Both Proffit and Thomas said that, while there are students and staff members at schools who are either isolated due to illness or quarantined due to exposure, from what can be determined those individuals are becoming sick elsewhere and not becoming sick at school itself. “Spread is happening in the community and impacting schools,” said Proffit. Thomas said that, as of Friday, about 4.5% of students and staff were out of school either due to confirmed COVID-19 infection or exposure and quarantine, but also reiterated it appears most spread is happening outside of school. “Let’s slow the spread so we can keep kids in school,” he said.

Proffit also reiterated Gordon’s statements about businesses, noting that many businesses are struggling to remain open now due to ill employees, which is every bit as challenging for businesses, if not more so, than the closure orders in the spring.

Following the public health update, Uinta County Commissioner Mark Anderson submitted a statement to the Herald regarding COVID-19.

“Through much of this pandemic, our community has done a fantastic job. Keeping positive numbers at a manageable amount for our healthcare systems was the goal. Since early in the year when this ugly virus appeared in our community up to recent times, Uinta County citizens have been able to flatten the curve. That was the goal – to flatten the curve and reduce strain on doctors and hospitals that serve our area.”

Anderson continued, “The concern going forward is just that, as we see record numbers of cases in the Wasatch Front and hospitals in the region filling up, we should start paying more attention and making changes. We must all recognize the impacts to an overwhelmed healthcare system have far-reaching effects, from elective surgery capabilities to emergency room response.”

“As many know, the Uinta County Commission passed a resolution on Sept. 15. Speaking personally, I feel the need to address the public concerning it. This resolution came at a time when COVID-19 was being managed very well and case numbers for months had been very low. The resolution in its purpose was to do a few things.”

“First was to recognize the constitutional rights of individuals to make healthcare decisions for themselves. Second was to recognize that all mandates and orders were from the State of Wyoming and that the commission had no intent to impose mandates and/or orders pursuant to the health-related decision of one’s self or family. Third was to recognize and appreciate our county public health workers and health officer for the work they have rendered and continue to render.”

Anderson said, “The intent was not to direct the public to ignore the state’s orders/mandates or to cause a rift between mask wearers and those who choose not to wear a mask. As commissioner and as a resident, I ask you to respect each other’s wishes as this pandemic rages on. I ask that we all make smart decisions when we are around others in public. Do what you can to stay healthy and safe.”

“I believe strongly that as a community we can and will make better, smarter decisions with our social distancing, masking and sanitation habits to ensure that our hospitals and healthcare providers do not get overwhelmed.”

According to the Wyoming Information Sharing Platform, there were 9,897 active cases of COVID-19 on the morning of Monday, Nov. 16, with 245 active cases in Uinta County. The number of active cases statewide increased by more than 3,000 since Monday, Nov. 9, and the number of fatalities increased from 114 to 144.

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