Uinta County state’s COVID-19 ‘hot spot’ as Gordon further eases restrictions

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon puts on his face mask after speaking at the podium during a press conference Wednesday, May 27, 2020, inside the Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. Gov. Gordon, while joined by rodeo leadership across the state, announced the cancellation of the six largest rodeos in Wyoming due to COVID-19 concerns. (WYOMING TRIBUNE EAGLE/Michael Cummo)

EVANSTON — On Wednesday, June 10, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced further easing of public health restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing for larger indoor public gatherings. Gordon’s actions were based on improving metrics statewide, including an overall decrease in the number of new cases and the percentage of all COVID-19 tests conducted that return as positive.

While statewide metrics are improving, the same cannot be said for Uinta County, which has seen a spike in cases in the past week. Since the first positive case in Uinta County was confirmed on April 1, the number of positive cases had slowly ticked up to a total of 10 confirmed and only one active by June 3.

That all changed on the afternoon of Thursday, June 4, when Uinta County Public Health received notice of five positive cases. Over the following weekend five more cases were identified with another 13 confirmed early this week. The case count has increased daily and as of press time, Uinta County has 48 total cases, with 39 of those listed as active cases.

The county’s percentage of tests returning as positive has now jumped to approximately 18% this week.

For public health officials, this is worrisome. If the cases had been spread out evenly in the slightly more than 10 weeks since the first case was identified, the situation wouldn’t be as concerning as having total cases rise exponentially in the span of one week.

Particularly worrisome is that some of the confirmed positive cases are local healthcare personnel.

Though it is confidential exactly how many or which healthcare providers have confirmed cases, Kemmerer’s South Lincoln Medical Center announced this week that its offices throughout southwest Wyoming would be closed after two staff members at SLMC facilities tested positive for COVID-19. Evanston’s Arrowhead Family Medicine — the office of Dr. Spencer Weston — is an SLMC affiliate that is currently closed.

A phone recording at Arrowhead on Wednesday, June 10, said the office would be closed until Monday, June 22, due to positive COVID testing, during which time the entire facility would be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. Of note, though SLMC itself is located in Lincoln County, the number of positive cases in that county has not changed since the announcement of the two positive cases, which would seem to indicate those individuals did not live in Lincoln County and are instead included among Uinta County’s numbers. A message requesting additional information from Weston’s office was not returned by press time.

Two local home health providers — Best Home Health and Cowboy Cares — were contacted about potential positive cases in personnel at those agencies. Eric Kocer, executive manager, and Ben Fehr, CEO of Best Home Health, emphasized there have been no positive cases in staff or patients of that agency, though staff have been tested regularly since the pandemic began.

“When an employee is tested, even in situations where there are no symptoms, Best Home Health & Hospice staff isolate and do not provide care to clients until the result is known,” reads a statement from Fehr. “As an organization, we have invested heavily in PPE and other supplies to ensure patient and staff safety. The health of our clients, staff and community is what drives us each and every day.” Kocer said the agency has helped set the standard for COVID-19 policies in Wyoming and submitted some of the first pandemic plans to the Wyoming Department of Health.

Lynn Torzillo, owner and director of nursing at Cowboy Cares, said the agency is open and working closely with public health to ensure all guidelines and recommendations are being followed while caring for patients. Torzillo said she could not divulge any information as to whether staff with that agency had tested positive for COVID, as that would violate HIPAA confidentiality requirements.

When reached for comment on Thursday, Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said the county has become Wyoming’s current hot spot for new cases, with the number of active cases second only to Fremont County, which has been Wyoming’s epicenter since the pandemic began.

Public health staff locally are devoting tremendous resources to contact tracing and asking people with significant exposure to quarantine. “I don’t know if there’s a business or agency in Evanston that’s not going to be impacted by this current outbreak with the number of people now in quarantine,” said Proffit, noting she didn’t have exact numbers yet but estimated there were easily 100 people currently in quarantine with likely more to come as new confirmations come in. Those quarantined range from teenagers to elderly individuals.

Proffit said contact tracing has revealed a likely “super spreader” event at a large gathering held in Evanston on May 30, which many of the positive cases attended. “We’re seeing a lot of connections to that one event, where a lot of people were in close proximity for an extended period of time.”

She said some of the people who attended that gathering are only recently developing symptoms, while others developed symptoms very quickly, emphasizing the long incubation period of anywhere from a couple of days to up to two weeks. “We’re also seeing waves of infection,” said Proffit, “of the people who showed symptoms last week as the first wave, but now contacts of those people are the second wave and we’re preparing for a probable third later next week.”

Though there are still no current hospitalizations in Uinta County, Proffit said public health staff have been working with staff at Evanston Regional Hospital to prepare for potential hospitalizations from the current spike in cases. “Our county’s previous cases of COVID-19 were pretty mild and short-lived. This round appears to be a little different. It seems to have spread more quickly and easily, and many are experiencing more severe symptoms.”

Although conflicting information has emerged from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) this week regarding the ability of completely asymptomatic individuals to spread the illness to others, a new report from the CDC emphasized that up to 40% of transmission can occur in the “presymptomatic” phase — the 48 hours prior to an infected individual having any symptoms at all and being unaware that he or she is sick.

Proffit stressed the importance of adhering to public health orders and utilizing social distancing and cloth face coverings in public situations. “We’re finding that the chance of transmission is so low when both individuals in contact with one another are masked,” said Proffit, “that those people may not even need to quarantine at all even if one comes back as positive.”

She also urged people to recognize the impacts their decisions can have on others. “The choices and risks that you make for yourself don’t always just affect you. Many of the current cases are young adults and perhaps don’t worry too much about getting sick. But we don’t practice the precautions for ourselves. We practice them for our whole community. You may not be worried about getting sick or the outcome for you, but there are people you likely come into contact with who do. The potential of our little outbreak is big and worrisome. Individual choices may have a big impact on others’ lives, especially vulnerable folks.”

“Right now, small decisions are having a really big impact on our community.”

As of press time, the Wyoming Department of Health reports 768 lab-confirmed cases with another 212 probable and 18 fatalities; 804 cases are listed as recovered. The CDC reports 1,994,283 cases and 112,967 fatalities in the U.S. as of June 11.

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