With Nearly Half Of Wyoming's Confirmed COVID-19 Cases, Fremont County Locks Down

Mar 20, 2020

Fremont County currently has the highest number of known COVID-19 cases in Wyoming - nine out of 20 that have been confirmed in our state by Friday. Eight of Fremont County's cases are residents or staff members at Lander's Showboat Retirement Center, and state health officials say the ninth case is directly related to that cluster.

Wyoming Public Radio's Savannah Maher has been reporting from Lander. She talked with Bob Beck about news that one of those Lander patients was initially denied testing, and how the city and county are responding to the pandemic.

Bob Beck: That's an alarming story from Tesla Meyer.

Savannah Maher: It is on many levels, but what raises the most serious questions for me is the fact that this woman was initially passed over for testing. She's 63-years old with pre-existing respiratory problems, a resident of a long-term care facility, she had a severe cough. I reached out to SageWest, and they say they can't comment out of concern for the patient's privacy. But based on what we've been told by the state Department of Health, she should've fallen squarely into their criteria for testing. She also rode the senior center bus twice on Friday, and visited St. John's Clinic and Sage West in Lander. It seems likely that she could've infected other vulnerable people.

BB: And I assume we can expect the number of cases in Fremont County to continue to rise.

SM: We can. I spoke with Lander's Assistant Mayor Rajean Strube Fossen. As of Friday morning, she said a shipment of medical supplies was on its way to Fremont County.

"Test kits and PPE have been routed to our Fremont County Incident Command Center. And we have hundreds of tests available to us in Fremont County."

She said the number of people hospitalized for the illness at SageWest in Lander also rose from 3 to 4 by Friday morning, though she said no one is in critical condition or on a ventilator. She wasn't sure how many tests had been administered in Fremont County.

BB: So how are cities and towns in Fremont County responding?

SM: Well, like everywhere else in Wyoming, all schools are closed here. After the governor's order on Thursday night, bars and restaurants in town are only providing curbside pick up and delivery. The city of Lander declared a state of emergency earlier this week, freeing up city officials to respond to the changing situation with policy change without going through the City Council. Lander and Riverton city buildings are closed to the public. Residents are being asked not to gather in groups of more than 10, and law enforcement throughout Fremont County have suspended non-urgent service. That means we're all being asked not to call in for example about a dog-at-large or other things like that.

BB: What's the mood like in Lander?

SM: I'm practicing social distancing - I actually haven't left my apartment in several days except to take the dog out. But my partner ventured out on Thursday for groceries. That was before the Governor's order, so some bars and restaurants had a few customers. The locally-owned grocery store was busier than usual, probably because word got around that they had a shipment of toilet paper. But employees were wearing gloves. In Fremont County, we're lucky to be close to Sinks Canyon and the Wind River mountains, so I've seen lots of people on social media taking advantage of that to go hiking, biking, climbing.Overall though, I think people are rattled. There was a sense that being such a remote community, we might be insulated from this illness. Now that there's clear community spread, people are scared.

BB: And your usual beat is covering the Wind River Reservation - how are folks there holding up?

SM: There are no confirmed cases yet on the rez. But there are lots of reasons why Wind River is especially vulnerable. There are a lot of health disparities there - high rates of illnesses like asthma, diabetes, heart disease. A high rate of people, especially elders, are taking medication that suppresses their immune system. There's a housing crisis on Wind River - most people live in multigenerational homes, many live in severely overcrowded homes where the disease could spread very quickly among 15 or 20 people. And the vast majority of tribal members rely on the reservation's two federally funded Indian Health Service facilities for care. Many don't have outside health insurance, meaning they don't have the flexibility to go elsewhere if the IHS clinics become overwhelmed. I will say that, just from my observation, it seems that those IHS clinics have been preparing farther in advance and perhaps more rigorously than others. I know Wind River Family and Community Healthcare had laid out protocol a month before Wyoming saw its first case, and they started triaging patients in their parking lot over a week ago, long before other facilities started taking that precaution. I spoke with Richard Brannan, CEO of that facility - he said they've been preparing so rigorously because they don't expect any assistance from the feds.

"There isn't going to be a Lone Ranger riding up with a white hat and a white stallion and say, 'I'm gonna save you,' or whatever. We have to be prepared, given the limitations of our resources.

Brannan called on the Indian Health Service to provide more tests to tribal clinics - he called on them to release emergency funding. Since then, the federal government has allocated over 100 million dollars just for tribes and IHS facilities to fight COVID-19. We'll have to wait and see how much of that trickles down to Wind River.

BB: Savannah, thank you for the update.

SM: Thanks, Bob.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.