Gov. Mark Gordon watches State Health Officer and State Epidemiologist Dr. Alexia Harrist answer questions at a press conference on the novel coronavirus Monday, March 23, 2020, at the Governor’s Ceremonial Conference room in the state Capitol. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Gov. Mark Gordon said Monday the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wyoming is likely not reflective of the true number of virus cases in the community due to limited testing supplies.

During a news conference Monday at the state Capitol, Gordon said the COVID-19 outbreak won’t be over in two weeks, and there is community spread of the virus. He said this pandemic will continue to impact the lives of Wyomingites for the foreseeable future.

“The orders we have issued closing certain public spaces and limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people are intended to save lives and protect human health. These actions are occurring nationwide, and in every state in the coming days. I expect there will be additional statewide orders,” Gordon said. “Our hope is that by implementing some of these preventative strategies, we will avoid the need for more extreme measures.”

These unprecedented measures are meant to ensure the health care system isn’t overwhelmed, Gordon said, and that everyone who needs treatment can access it.

Laramie County now has seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday evening. The most recent case is in a man in his 60s who has had limited contact outside his home, according to a news release.

Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, said the health department isn’t using the term “community spread” at this time.

The first six cases in the county were all known contacts with other confirmed coronavirus cases, and five of the first six remain at home in isolation. One of the cases is a middle-aged adult man who had to be hospitalized at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center due to worsening symptoms.

Statewide, there are 28 reported COVID-19 cases across eight counties. The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory has conducted 532 virus tests, private labs have reported 147 tests to the Wyoming Department of Health, and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has reported one test, according to the state health department’s website.

“So our hope is that people will take this seriously, understand what the consequences are. And you can look anywhere in the world, look at Italy, if you want to look at Louisiana, if you want to look at New York, you want to look at what’s going on in California, and people might have this sort of view that it’ll never come here,” Gordon said. “That’s the attitude that got Louisiana and other states kind of in the shape they are. It is absolutely imperative that we address this quickly so that we don’t overrun our medical capacity.”

The state lab is running about 80 to 100 tests a day with no backlog, said Dr. Alexia Harrist, state health officer and state epidemiologist with the state health department. Emmons said the lab is also working on weekends to process tests.

Right now, the lab has the supplies to conduct about 1,300 more tests, Harrist said.

Both Harrist and Gordon emphasized the importance of social distancing, which means staying home as much as possible, and if people must go outside, to stay at least six feet away from each other.

“As a doctor, I’d like to provide some more information about why this is so critical. The main way this virus spreads is through respiratory droplets. So if you’re ill, and you cough or sneeze, and you are close to other people – and we define close as within six feet – you can easily spread this disease to anyone nearby,” Harrist said. “That’s why we want to limit the number of people many of us are close to. Staying away from others as much as possible helps protects yourself, your family and the members of our community who are most vulnerable to this illness.”

Local impact

Tim Thornell, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center CEO and president, said he wanted to reassure people the emergency department remains open 24/7 for people who need emergency health care.

Emergency Department Medical Director Dr. Jessica Hughes reminded people that if they have mild flu-like symptoms, they should stay home and contact their health care provider. She added that if people need to go to the hospital for COVID-19, they should call ahead and go straight to the emergency department entrance.

“We’re committed to caring for our patients in our community. We’ve worked to create protocols and have designated isolation areas in the emergency department and in the hospital, in order for us to care for and test patients that are concerned that they have COVID-19,” Hughes said.

Thornell added that if people are coming to the hospital for other, non-COVID-19 related issues, they should enter through the designated entrance off of House Avenue. He added that at this time, there is still only one visitor allowed per patient at the hospital.

The hospital currently has about 30 beds in two separate units it can use for COVID-19 patients, with the ability to adapt more space, if needed, Thornell said. He also said the hospital has about 30 to 35 ventilators, with the ability to get more.

Hughes said like most hospitals nationwide, CRMC is affected by the national medical supply shortage. Currently, the hospital is only testing people who are immune-compromised, who have had known contact with other people diagnosed with COVID-19, travel history to high-risk areas or other qualifications under the CDC guidelines.

Gordon said Wyoming is receiving a shipment of personal protection equipment from a strategic national stockpile that will be distributed throughout the state Tuesday.

People can look at the Wyoming Department of Health website or the CDC website for the latest information on COVID-19 testing and when to seek medical attention.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. The CDC said emergency warning signs of COVID-19 are difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain like chest pressure, confusion, inability to arouse, bluish lips or face and more. If people develop symptoms such as these, they should seek medical attention immediately.

“So at a time like this, we are getting a lot of inquiries from the public saying, ‘How could we help? The hospital is kind of a focal point now, is there anything we can do to contribute?’ And the answer is yes,” Thornell said. “Starting tomorrow (Tuesday), we’ll also have a link on what anyone can do to kind of volunteer and help.”

First responders

Cheyenne Fire Rescue Chief Greg Hoggatt said first responders have modified some of their emergency responses to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. CFR has also scaled back its non-emergency functions, such as offering firehouse tours, to the public.

He added that life goes on, despite COVID-19, and CFR is still responding to other non-virus related medical emergencies.

Emergency response plans are being developed if the outbreak were to worsen, and CFR is looking at limiting the number of people who go inside a home during a response if there is potential for COVID-19 exposure, Hoggatt said.

He added that they’re also looking at ways to clean engines between responses to make sure there aren’t any potential virus droplets on the engines that could spread to other people.

Jeanine West, Cheyenne-Laramie County Emergency Management director, added that American Medical Response is also dedicating an ambulance to exclusively deal with COVID-19 related calls that started deploying last week.

Gordon wanted to make sure people also understand that if first responders are exposed to COVID-19, they must self-isolate and take themselves away from doing their jobs, which is what’s happening in other states.

Wyoming can overcome the virus if Wyomingites work together, Gordon said.

Isabella Alves is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at ialves@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @IsabellaAlves96.

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