CASPER – Expressing disappointment in community members’ recent behavior, Natrona County health officer Dr. Mark Dowell said Tuesday that the county’s recent influx of coronavirus cases “correlates really well” with people not taking seriously the recommendations put in place to stem the virus’ spread.
Dowell announced two new confirmed cases in the county, bringing the total number of cases confirmed in the last week to 13. Prior to that, the county had gone three weeks without one.
“And we’re seeing this in other states. You loosen the recommendations and the compliance with what we want you to do, and you see an increase in cases,” Dowell said at an in-person news conference Tuesday morning. “I’ve got to tell you, we can do a better job as a community at following the guidelines from the state and from our Health Department.”
The state has allowed most businesses to reopen in stages this month, and some changes – bars reopening and restaurants offering indoor dining, for example – were permitted earlier in Natrona County than in other parts of the state due to the county’s relatively low case count.
But the latest health orders still require businesses to follow certain precautions, gatherings are still limited to 25 people, and officials continue to recommend people wear face masks in public. It appears that many in Natrona County aren’t taking those recommendations to heart, Dowell said.
“It’s as if people don’t think it’s real or don’t think they should have to do it,” he said. “... I think the families of the 90,000 Americans that have died in the last 2 1/2 months would appreciate if we did what we needed to do, even in Wyoming.”
While Dowell said the community initially heeded the guidelines on face coverings and social distancing, he feels that people are now “kind of blowing it off.”
He referred to one restaurant in which multiple employees over the weekend were not wearing face coverings as required.
Additionally, he said he recently went into a fitness center where no employees were wearing face coverings and patrons were being asked to clean equipment rather than employees, which was one of the requirements for gyms to reopen.
“Those of you who go to the grocery store know exactly what I’m talking about,” Dowell said. “The employees are wearing the masks, but probably 20 percent of the patrons. And that’s just not OK.”
If the community does not start to take more precautions, he said, the ability for in-person schooling to return in the fall could be put in jeopardy.
Still, Dowell did not go as far as to say he felt things had reopened too quickly. The Casper-Natrona County Health Department is not currently considering any new restrictions on top of those now required by the Wyoming Department of Health.
“We’re going to follow the lead of the governor,” he said. “Things would have to be seriously exploding in the state or the county to ever consider that, and that would be done in coordination with city and county officials and of course the governor’s office and the state health officer. We would rather work with everybody and say, ‘Come on, guys. Do what you need to do for everybody’s health and work with people.’ We don’t want to make things punitive.”Instead, Dowell said, businesses need to “double back on what you need to do. Do it right. Follow the governor’s recommendations so we don’t get into problems.”
As far as new variances, for which the county has received “a lot of requests,” Dowell said the increase in cases made it “even harder to know what to do with” them.
Yellowstone Garage’s request to host its annual Memorial Day car show had been initially approved but was then denied because of the newly confirmed cases.
Dowell emphasized that the recent increase was not the result of a mere increase in testing; he said the county has been doing more testing because of contract tracing and because more people have exhibited symptoms that warrant testing.
“We have no doubt that there is community spread, which was the concern all along,” Dowell said.
He also said that there are “a bunch” of outstanding tests that have been done as a result of an uptick in people coming in sick. The county won’t know whether those illnesses are coronavirus-related for the next few days.
There are now 51 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Natrona County, as well as 13 probable cases – instances in which a patient who has not been tested has developed coronavirus-like symptoms and was a close contact of a laboratory-tested case.
The press conference Tuesday was the first by local officials to be held in person in about two months. Reporters were required to wear face masks and were socially distanced. Dowell wore a Gumby-themed mask, which he acknowledged at the start of his address before lowering it to speak more clearly.
The health officer also took time during the news conference to discourage people from taking antibody tests, as their accuracy levels are still problematic, and from espousing the importance of herd immunity.
As many as 1 or 2 million Americans would have to die before such immunity took effect, Dowell estimated.
He said he expected the virus’s trajectory to continue to seesaw here throughout the summer and expressed concern that a big spike could come when the seasons change.