By MARGARET AUSTIN, Wyoming Tribune Eagle
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Although Wyoming is the least-populated state in the country, its people thrive on coming together – whether it’s at a rodeo, a fundraiser or a University of Wyoming football game. As the saying goes, “Wyoming is one small town with really long streets.”
So when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Cowboy State one year ago, many aspects of life had to change. While some folks continued living their lives as normal – even hosting protests at the Capitol against mask requirements – the majority of cities, counties, towns, local businesses and nonprofits in the state felt the sometimes crushing effects of the pandemic.
What’s even harder to quantify is the life and love lost to the coronavirus. Nearly 110 Laramie County residents, many from long-term care facilities, had their lives cut short due to COVID-19 – some by years and some by decades. In total, nearly 700 Wyomingites have died so far from the virus, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports.
For the team at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, each and every death was taken to heart. ICU nurse Alissa Robinson said she can name patients who have died because the experience was so “traumatic.”
“People were saying, ‘It’s a 1% death rate; it’s not that big of a deal.’ But it is,” Robinson said. “It’s not a big deal until it’s your mom or your dad or your grandma in that room.”
Even now, as vaccinations are being distributed and the number of COVID-19 patients at CRMC has declined, the staff said their experience over the last year isn’t something that can be forgotten.
“I wish we could bring people into the hospital, because I don’t think people actually grasp the realness of it all,” Robinson said.
For health care workers and other residents in Wyoming, the COVID-19 situation unraveled quickly and snowballed into something no one could anticipate. As the CRMC staff put it, no one in medical school prepares you for a pandemic of this scale.
The state’s first case was confirmed on Wednesday, March 11, and by Monday, March 16, Laramie County schools planned to close for three weeks. They ultimately remained closed the rest of the school year.
Then, on March 19, the first state health orders were laid out, closing schools, theaters, bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, employee cafeterias, self-serve buffets, salad bars, gyms, conference rooms and museums.
At that time, Gov. Mark Gordon said in a news release, “This governor has never been inclined to overstep local authority, but these are unprecedented times. It is critical that there is uniformity across the state in how social distancing measures are implemented.”
The closures and the uncontrollable nature of the virus led to an unprecedented economic downturn, which placed more pressure on Laramie County’s nonprofits to meet the demand for food assistance and help with rent and utilities.
For the NEEDS Inc. food pantry, the higher demand translated to a 369% increase in the amount of food they were getting out the door and into the community. Pantry Manager Damon Hart said although it was difficult to see so many people struggling, the experience reinforced the mission of NEEDS and why the volunteers do what they do.
At the start of the pandemic, it was still unclear exactly how transmissible the virus was and what precautions would keep people safe. Hart said they sanitized frequently and did everything they could to keep their doors open and help more people.
“Knowing how much we mean to the community, it really changed our outlooks a lot,” Hart said. “Hearing their stories made us really grateful that we were able to help.”
Their ability to assist so many residents was made possible by businesses and the larger community stepping up to support the cause. Most charitable organizations had to cancel or postpone fundraisers or pivot to online events, while also trying to meet significantly higher demand for services. Given that, the people of Cheyenne were vital in helping fill those funding gaps.
Hart said, “I would hate to know what would’ve happened if we had not received that help.”
“Oh my goodness, we have COVID”
While the economic impact of the closures and the virus have persisted throughout the pandemic, Laramie County’s case numbers remained steadily low throughout the summer of 2020 compared to what was to come in the fall. From June to the start of September, the number of new cases generally ranged between 10 and 50 each day, according to New York Times data.
On Oct. 1, the number of daily cases jumped to 135, and on Nov. 1, Wyoming saw 425 new confirmed cases. By the middle of November, the state saw a peak of new daily COVID-19 cases at just over 1,200.
During that October peak, the virus reached Cheyenne resident Elsa McHenry, her husband and her father-in-law. All showed symptoms of COVID-19. For McHenry and her husband, the initial headaches and stuffy noses were easy to write off as being caused by smoke from regional wildfires.
But then, McHenry said, “My father-in-law let me know that he had a fever, and he had taken Tylenol and ibuprofen and it didn’t go away. I immediately was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we have COVID.’”
Her father-in-law tested positive, but McHenry and her husband were already sure of their diagnosis, so they did not go to get tested so as to not infect anyone else. She said she wished the state had a better process for testing people who knew they had COVID-19, so the case numbers would be more accurate without having to risk exposing other folks getting tested like teachers and students.
Toward the start of November, the state found a solution to that issue and used CARES Act relief funding to pay for at-home COVID-19 tests from Wyoming residents.
But without that option in October, quarantine was a serious matter for the McHenrys, who were always sure to let their grocery delivery drivers know that they were in a COVID-19 positive household. She said she hopes we’ve learned some lessons about generally accepted practices in society.
“For so long, we found it perfectly appropriate to stuff as many people as we could into a small space for work, or it was appropriate for you to push through having a cold because work came first,” McHenry said. “I think it was an eye-opener – that we really needed to take a step back and maybe have better practices for healthy work environments.”
COVID-19 case numbers in Wyoming are better than they were, and have remained on the downturn except for a spike after the holidays. More and more residents are receiving their vaccines, which help lessen the hospital’s COVID-19 workload, though CRMC staff did voice some concerns about whether the lifting of the mask mandate next week might cause another spike.
Unfortunately, though, more pandemics will occur in the future, just as they have throughout history. Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman offered some takeaways for what should be done differently next time.
While he commended the team at city-county health for “rising to the challenge” during COVID-19, Hartman said, “Dealing with future outbreaks will also depend on support from local, state and national government, and numerous other public and private institutions.”
The Wyoming Legislature is currently hearing a number of bills related to the pandemic, one to limit the power of state health orders. That gained final approval from the Senate on Wednesday and would require legislative approval for statewide health orders to be extended beyond 60 days, as well as a locally elected body’s approval for any local orders to last longer than 30 days.
On the other hand, Hartman voiced his support for Senate File 30, which would establish a post-pandemic task force to review any possible changes to the process.
“We should avoid rushed, piecemeal legislation that could have unintended consequences or hamper the response to future pandemics,” Hartman said.
On the same note, he said the politicization of basic health recommendations like mask wearing and social distancing was an issue in Wyoming and across the country. He gave the example of Taiwan, which has 23 million people and high compliance with public health measures. They had only 977 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths.
“Wyoming, with 578,000 people, has had 46,550 cases and 691 deaths. The U.S. has over half a million deaths,” Hartman said. “By turning basic public health measures into political arguments, we have become our own worst enemy, and nationally, this has cost thousands of lives.”
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.