EVANSTON — The COVID-19 pandemic surge in Uinta County as yet shows little signs of slowing, despite the mask mandate that’s been in place for approximately two weeks, although public health staff caution it’s far too soon to tell if that mandate has been effective in cutting down transmission of the coronavirus. With the lengthy incubation period associated with COVID-19 infection, in addition to the time it typically takes for a sick individual to decide to get tested and get results, it can take several weeks to begin to see any notable decline in new cases.
In fact, there were 187 new cases reported, a new county high, during the weeklong span that ended on Thanksgiving — the first week of the mask mandate.
With hundreds of active cases in the county, virtually no business or organization has been spared from isolation and quarantine periods for staff members who are either sick themselves or have been exposed to someone who is. This includes first responders, healthcare providers, school districts and more. A statement from Evanston Regional Hospital acknowledged the challenges of providing healthcare to the increasing numbers of sick individuals when they themselves are also dealing with illnesses and quarantines.
“As always, we’re closely monitoring staffing and equipment levels,” it reads. “Like most organizations, we are not immune to the pandemic’s effects and have staff in quarantine. In line with our typical staffing protocols, we address any gaps to ensure patient care is uninterrupted.”
The statement also continued to ask for community support for healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. “The strength and resilience needed to care for COVID-19 patients is unmatched. Our doctors, nurses and support teams have been true heroes showing up month after month to combat this virus for our community. We encourage everyone in our community to do their part by wearing a mask in public, washing hands regularly and social distancing.”
While Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit reported on Tuesday that five Uinta County individuals were hospitalized with COVID-19 infection; not all of those were hospitalized in Evanston.
ERH Chief Nursing Officer Angie Foster said, “Currently, we do have positive COVID-19 patients in the COVID unit of our hospital. … Our patient volumes and acuity levels can change by the hour, and we’re closely monitoring staffing and equipment levels throughout this increase in local cases. We’ve seen how quickly bed capacity can become an issue in some states. At this time, we have enough beds to care for patients. We’ve also added capacity for more patients if needed. … The COVID unit can grow and expand based on demand. We also still offer private rooms to our COVID-19 patients.”
As illness spreads and more people experience the symptoms commonly associated with COVID-19 — shortness of breath, cough, fever, difficulty breathing, muscles aches and pains, fatigue and more — determining when symptoms are severe enough to seek medical care is important. Symptomatic patients can be seen via telehealth appointments with primary care providers or visit the emergency room. Liz Black, emergency room physician at ERH, said there are no set criteria for determining when a patient should be admitted.
“The emergency room physician decides on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “Many patients can monitor their symptoms from home and return to the emergency department if their symptoms worsen. Symptoms of COVID-19 can vary widely. Some people get better quickly, some have stable but noticeable symptoms for a long time and some people get sicker. We are here 24/7, 365 days a year to help.”
As a general rule, Black said, “If people have difficulty breathing, they should seek emergency care.” If seeking that emergency care involves calling 911, they should notify dispatch if the patient is COVID-19 positive so EMS crews can be prepared and arrive in appropriate personal protective equipment. Alternatively, patients can ask a family member to drive them to the ER; however, it is requested that people call the ER at 307-783-8268 first.
As is the case with the hospital itself, there have been separate areas for COVID and non-COVID patients established in the ER as well. Calling beforehand can allow an ER physician to arrange a telehealth visit first to determine if an in-person trip to the emergency room is warranted, as other emergencies, such as heart attacks, broken bones, accidents, etc., are all still occurring and every ER visit carries with it a potential for exposure.
Patients with severe COVID symptoms that require more intensive intervention can then be either admitted or possibly even transferred to a Utah hospital for a higher level of care. While such transfers are currently still a possibility, Proffit has continued to caution that Utah hospitals are still experiencing huge numbers of admissions for patients with COVID and have begun discussing rationing of care as they continue to operate at about 90% of capacity.
Although not officially confirmed by the Wyoming Department of Health or Uinta County Public Health, word of local fatalities has spread this week, with even the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees acknowledging the death of a staff member earlier this week during their December meeting. While not able to confirm deaths, Proffit said, “It’s been a really hard week.”
As she has for the past couple of weeks, Proffit stressed the importance of community support to get caseloads down. She said healthcare providers at all levels are stretched very thin, especially with staff members out sick themselves. She said ERH staff, including those who are conducting more than a hundred drive-through COVID tests per day, as well as nursing home and home health staff, physician offices, etc., are all feeling the strain of the current surge.
“This is a legitimate threat to everybody,” Proffit said. “Even if you don’t have COVID, your ability to get care for other issues is also impacted by this. But it’s entirely preventable, and we really need the community’s help.”
Even with decreased levels of testing late last week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, Proffit said there were still 91 new local cases reported between Friday and Tuesday afternoon. Testing was not conducted at ERH from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday but reopened on Monday morning. The rapid testing machine at ERH reportedly broke last week as well, but ERH Business Development Director Jessica Kendrick said a new rapid testing machine was delivered Monday and that service is again available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
While ERH is dealing with staff absences due to COVID-19, direct healthcare employees are not eligible for the two weeks of paid sick leave for certain COVID-19 reasons provided by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress. This is not, however, due to policies implemented by ERH but rather due to the exemptions contained in the legislation that preclude healthcare providers from eligibility for the coverage that applies to all businesses with fewer than 500 employees.
An ERH statement about the leave provided to healthcare workers said, “Healthcare providers are on the front lines of this pandemic and as such, our primary concern is to keep facilities staffed to provide vital patient care. We have implemented many proven infection control protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within our hospital and our employees. The leave policy incentivizes our healthcare providers to follow these infection control protocols at work and to take the same care in their personal lives so that we can remain fully staffed as a hospital.”
In other COVID-19 related developments, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced that he is making $5 million in CARES Act funds available for behavioral health providers throughout the state to provide for mental health services for Wyoming residents struggling with the impacts of the pandemic.
“We know this pandemic and its impacts have taken its toll on the mental health of many Wyomingites, particularly those battling substance abuse,” Governor Gordon said. “This funding will enhance the ability for Wyoming providers to deliver services to those having difficulty accessing help and those who are unable to pay for the assistance they need.”
A press release from Gordon’s office said the funding allocated may be used to provide no-cost services for Wyoming residents experiencing behavioral health challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to enhance or offer telehealth and other remote services related to the pandemic, to provide behavioral health services to residents at long-term care facilities, to purchase personal protective equipment and for reimbursement for costs incurred since March due to COVID-19 that haven’t been reimbursed from another pay source.
Applications for the funding are due by Dec. 15 and more information is available on the Wyoming Department of Health website.