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Natrona County officials abruptly end meeting in the face of heckling
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Natrona County officials abruptly end meeting in the face of heckling

Natrona County news conference

Natrona County Commissioner Rob Hendry (standing, left) tries to get audience members to allow County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell to discuss the state of COVID-19 in the county at a news conference Monday at Casper College.

A meeting intended to discuss the surge of coronavirus cases in Natrona County and a possible mask order ended abruptly Monday after a hostile crowd repeatedly interrupted and heckled doctors and politicians who were trying to speak.

Natrona County commissioners called the meeting to discuss the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, how it’s affecting local health resources and what can be done to stem the virus’s spread.

Scheduled to speak was a list of local officials: Casper-Natrona County Health Department director Anna Kinder, county health officers Drs. Mark Dowell and Ghazi Ghanem, Wyoming Medical Center CEO Dr. J.J. Bleicher, WMC Chief of Staff Dr. Andy Dunn, the Natrona County School District superintendent, and the president of Casper College.

Nearly half of these officials didn’t make it to the microphone. The meeting was adjourned 45 minutes after it began because of constant and aggressive interruptions from the crowd.

Shortly after Dowell, an infectious disease specialist, began his remarks, the meeting devolved into a battle between public health officials hoping to share details about the worsening state of COVID-19 infections and members of the public who refused to hear them out.

Dowell began his address by saying the virus was not political, a point he’s frequently repeated over the last several months.

“Please, please, please, this is not political. Please don’t make it political,” he started to say, before the crowd began mocking him for the statement.

“This is a medical emergency,” Dowell said. “The goal is to keep you healthy, keep the community healthy —”

Voices in the crowd cut off Dowell. A spectator said they can keep themselves healthy, a remark that earned applause from others in the auditorium.

This was 10 minutes into the meeting, and public officials never fully regained control of the room. Attempts by Dowell, Ghanem, commission Chairman Rob Hendry and Vice Chairman Paul Bertoglio were all rebuffed by the crowd. Even as Dowell shared details of two previously healthy COVID-19 patients on the brink of death, the crowd rejected the message.

“There’s one person (at WMC) 54 years old, perfectly healthy, that is dying today,” Dowell said. “And another one, 56, that is probably going to die tomorrow.”

Cases, quarantines and hospitalizations

An ongoing surge in cases statewide has spurred a record number of hospitalizations and deaths in Wyoming. As of Monday, 132 Wyomingites were being treated for COVID-19 — a six-fold increase from mid-September. Thirty-seven of Wyoming’s 87 coronavirus-related deaths were reported last month.

Before Dowell spoke, Kinder, director of the county health department, shared sobering statistics on COVID-19 infections in Natrona County.

Kinder highlighted the increasing number of new cases reported in the county over the last month. Three weeks ago, the county recorded 178 new virus cases. Two weeks ago, there were 228 new cases. Last week, there were 341 new virus cases in the county. Kinder said the growth has begun to affect long-term care facilities — she said there were more than 175 resident cases at county facilities as of Monday.

Two-hundred fifty healthcare workers county-wide are on modified quarantine because of virus exposure. Those employees would typically need to stay home from work as well but are being allowed to work under a modified quarantine requirement.

“The reason we allow for this is there is no one else to do their job,” Kinder said.

Kinder stressed that more COVID-19 cases in the county meant more hospitalizations, which could make accessing emergency care for non-virus patients difficult as well, she said.

This concern was nearly a reality in early October, when Wyoming Medical Center was almost at capacity and needed to hold 17 non-virus patients in the emergency department because there was no room elsewhere in the hospital.

Kinder spoke just before Dowell, but the crowd was mostly quiet during her remarks. She would be the only speaker, not counting County Attorney Eric Nelson’s introduction, the crowd did not antagonize during the 45-minute meeting.

Constant interruptions

The meeting was held at Casper College’s Wheeler Concert Hall. All the officials on stage were masked; those officials included several members of the Casper City Council, all five County Commissioners, several health officials and other community leaders. The masks themselves drew ire from the crowd. Several times, members of the audience yelled at the person at the podium to take their masks off. None of the officials complied with those requests.

At one point, audience members chanted “USA, USA,” and invoked Tuesday’s election as a reckoning for the politicians on stage. Only one sitting commissioner — Brook Kaufman — will be on Tuesday’s ballot, and county health officers are appointed, not elected.

Not everyone in the audience was hostile toward the officials. Two people at different times in the meeting stood up to ask that those speaking out of turn give the health experts an opportunity to speak. A designated time for questions and comments from the public had also been established, but it didn’t get that far.

Bleicher, the WMC CEO, at one point took to the podium to ask the crowd to consider the people in their lives with pre-existing medical conditions. He referenced the high rate of obesity in the U.S., as well as diabetes and heart disease — all of which have been linked to more serious complications in virus patients. But the message appeared to fall on deaf ears, as the crowd continued to taunt Bleicher and the others who attempted to quell the disgruntled audience.

Those in the crowd hostile toward the information shared a handful of concerns. Some invoked the U.S. Constitution and the worry that government-mandated face mask requirement would step on their personal liberties. Others questioned the science. Some quoted studies that masks don’t work, and some compared the virus to influenza — two claims that have been repeatedly rejected by infectious disease experts, Dowell included.

Tweet screenshot

People attending a Monday news conference criticize county officials as they attempt to discuss the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield has said masks help prevent the spread of the virus. Scientists at Stanford, Duke and a litany of other universities have said so as well. So have physicians and researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins University.

Several members of the crowd also questioned Dowell and Bleicher about whether the hospital receives money for each COVID-19 patient who dies in the facility. Both Dowell and Bleicher vehemently denied the assertion. The CARES Act did create a 20% premium for medicare payouts for patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19; that increase was to offset the additional costs taken on by hospitals to care for the patients.

Wyoming Medical Center, for example, has had to purchase more medical supplies, personal protective equipment and hire additional staff to address the pandemic.

There have been no reports of hospitals using fraudulent coronavirus numbers to game Medicaid.

Mask orders

Nelson, the county attorney, began the meeting by clarifying that there was no intent to make any decisions at Monday’s gathering — including a vote to institute a mask order. In fact, the Natrona County Commission does not have the authority to do so on its own. A county health officer would need State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist to approve such a request. Local elected leaders would not have the authority to enact or oppose such an order.

Still, the crowd resisted any effort of local officials to calm the room. Half an hour into the meeting, Nelson took to the podium to suggest the commissioners adjourn, given the resistance from the crowd. The meeting lasted another 15 minutes before officials acted on that recommendation.

Hendry and Bertoglio repeatedly begged the crowd to let Dowell and others on a stage at Casper College speak. However, the interruptions continued, prompting Hendry to finally call for the meeting’s end. The other commissioners quickly agreed.

Afterward, Hendry told a Star-Tribune reporter that the meeting would likely not be rescheduled because it wouldn’t be productive.

This is not the first time local officials have changed course during the pandemic after outcry from the public. The Casper City Council in April considered an ordinance that would fine anyone who violated the state health orders. That proposal quickly died after pushback from residents. Emails obtained in August by the Star-Tribune showed city and county officials opposed a mask mandate in April because they didn’t think the public would accept it.

Casper Mayor Steve Freel in a recent press briefing urged residents to wear face masks but said the city had no intention of passing its own ordinance requiring them.

On a state level, Gov. Mark Gordon and Harrist in response to questions about a statewide mask mandate have both said they will defer such decisions to local officials. So far, officials in Teton and Laramie Counties and the Wind River Reservation have imposed mask requirements.

Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites

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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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