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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

How Campbell County Is Handling An Extreme Spike In COVID-19 Cases

Catherine Wheeler

Since late September, the number of overall cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming has risen by more than 400 percent.

At a recent press conference, Gov. Mark Gordon expressed his anger over the dilemma the state finds itself in.

"Our state is under the most strain that it has seen since it [the pandemic] began and it's not letting up, it's going straight up. We've had the most deaths of any period in the last 30 days. And those are now coming in groups of 10s. Most hospitalizations, daily records this week, capacity issues," he said on November 13.

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said back in the spring, the community wasn't seeing a high number of cases, and so it opened back up. But things have changed since then.

"There's been restaurants that have had to close because of staffing. And I know with the city, just our organization, we're struggling to stay staffed. So, this is a little different than March," she said.

According to a press release, from October 5 to November 5, Campbell County saw close to a 900 percent increase in active cases, averaging 33 new confirmed cases per day.

The virus isn't sparing anyone's staffing, not even health officials. According to the Gillette News Record, about half of Campbell County's public health staff are out with COVID-19. It led to them having to put a pause on its drive-up flu clinic and its COVID-19 testing.

And the same goes for the hospital.

"I think one of the biggest significant hindrances for us is, we also are seeing anywhere from 80 to 120 staff out on quarantine or illness routinely," said Campbell County Health CEO Colleen Heeter.

That's a big issue as the number of COVID-related hospitalizations has been steadily rising over the past few weeks, Heeter said.

Campbell County Health's Chief Nursing Officer Misty Robertson said all of these factors could eventually overwhelm the hospital.

"Dealing with both increased volume of patients and some of our staff not being available because they're ill or quarantined [are] a double hit to the organization," Robertson said. "When like most hospitals, we have staff, we are at our normal activity. So when some of them are out, or we've got more activity than usual, it can be a hardship."

The hospital officials say that more funding for additional staff, like traveling nurses, is helpful to fill in the gaps.

Gov. Mark Gordon announced last week that $10 million of federal CARES Act funding will go towards alleviating that strain across the state.

As part of that effort, the Governor's office announced this week that its sending one of two federal medical system disaster teams to Gillette because of the immediate need in the area. The team will be made up of 15 staff that includes doctors and nurses and they'll stay for two weeks. The other team will go to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.

Gov. Gordon has mostly left it up to local governments to impose preventive measures. As of Wednesday, 12 counties and the Wind River Reservation have mandated masks in indoor public settings.

However, Campbell County is not one. At a recent commissioners meeting, the officials made a county employee mask mandate to hopefully keep more staffing issues like the one at public health at bay. But they've stopped short of drafting a county-wide mandate for residents.

Commissioner Del Shelstad was a vocal critic of the governor's health orders back in March. He said that this employee mandate isn't a precursor to a countywide one.

"I feel like the Governor gave us a unique opportunity to try to control the things that are happening in the county locally," he said. "So this is an effort for us to try and get a handle on our numbers."

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said, these days, it's hard to make rules when everything is so polarizing. But she said people might need to reframe why taking precautions is critical.

"I don't look at it as living with fear. I look at it as living with caution," she said. "I don't think anyone wants to take away anybody's freedom. I do feel sorry for businesses. I was a business owner for 41 years. And it's so hard, especially in these times to make a living. But if you don't have your staff because they're sick, or if your customers are sick, how does that help business? We've got to get smart so we can continue to live our lives like we're used to."

So as part of that personal responsibility piece, health officials are recommending taking a look at thanksgiving plans. And for the long term, they ask you to wear a mask, social distance and get a flu shot to help lessen the burden on healthcare as we head into flu season.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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