There are likely more cases of the novel coronavirus in Wyoming, an infectious disease expert told media Thursday, though he said the state had adequate testing abilities and that officials should continue calmly preparing. Later that same day, Gov. Mark Gordon said that officials still believe the overall risk of infection for Wyomingites remains low.
“I’m not panicked. Remember, we’re just trying to deal with this as a state,” said Dr. Mark Dowell, who is Natrona County’s health officer and is leading the coronavirus preparation efforts here. “We have one confirmed, or pretty confirmed, case in Sheridan. There are more out there. Let’s talk about it, get systems set up now because we’re going to have more. I guarantee you we’re going to have more.”
Dowell’s press conference to a group of reporters early Thursday afternoon was the third such gaggle in Casper since Wednesday morning. But there have been developments in that time: Wednesday night, the Health Department confirmed the state’s first case of the coronavirus, technically dubbed COVID-19. On Thursday morning, Dowell ordered that a state basketball tournament be canceled out of fears that it may lead to the spread of the respiratory illness.
Just as he told media Wednesday, Dowell sought to reassure Casper that health officials here were prepared to absorb any cases. That preparation includes acknowledging that more cases are a near certainty, though there were no other suspected or confirmed cases as of Thursday afternoon.
Another crucial piece, which Dowell has also repeatedly hit on, is how doctors and individuals here should handle potential cases. Dowell said that if you suspect you may have coronavirus, you should call your provider and you should not go into the emergency room with coronavirus symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath — unless you were in significant distress and having trouble breathing.
Dowell said there was much that’s still unknown about the virus, which has killed several thousand people worldwide and infected nearly 1,500 in the United States, according to the New York Times. For instance, it’s unclear just how contagious it is, relative to other diseases. But it appears “fairly contagious,” he said. Some people appear to have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all and still carry — and can spread — the virus.
Health officials across the U.S. have urged anyone exposed to the virus — either because they were in a place with several cases or they were in contact with someone with the disease — to self-quarantine for 14 days. Dowell said that meant 14 days after that contact. If you have symptoms, you should connect with your health care provider over the phone to determine how long you should isolate and whether you need to be tested.
Dowell stressed that patients cannot just walk into clinics and be tested. He said there 2,700 testing kits at the state Health Department, which other health officials have said is adequate to meet the state’s needs for the foreseeable future. Dowell clarified statements made by other officials and said that clinics do not have the specific part of the testing kit needed to transport samples to labs.
Kim Deti, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department, told the Star-Tribune on Thursday that the state’s lab has “enough supplies to meet the demand that will come ... for quite some time.” Testing is still limited to people who’ve traveled to COVID-19 hot spots or who have had contact with an infected person. Dowell said officials are working on “setting up testing in Natrona County based on the availability of supplies.”
Large groups discouraged
In a separate press conference Thursday, Gov. Mark Gordon said he was recommending that agencies and organizations across the state reconsider holding large events with 250 or more attendees. He also recommended that state employees seriously consider any planned travel out of state.
He said hospitals have the ability to do tests. Any samples are sent to Wyoming’s own state lab, where they can be processed. In the case of the Sheridan patient, the positive test has been sent to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before Dowell’s press conference, Anna Kinder, the executive director of the department, said her agency is on back order for its own testing kits.
Dowell said there was no plan or effort to close schools in Casper. He said there were still ongoing conversations about the circumstances — meaning the number of cases — that would be needed in order to close schools here. He called it a “big deal” that’s not being undertaken lightly.
Schools remain open
Natrona County School District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland wrote in a statement Thursday that the district was working closely with various health agencies and was monitoring the situation.
In a late Thursday press conference, state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said that schools may be closed if there are multiple cases in one facility or community or if officials believed closing a school would slow the spread of the virus.
In another, separate statement, state Superintendent Jillian Balow said the state Department of Education’s “guidance to school districts has not changed” despite the first confirmed case.
“School districts should work directly with their local community health department and the Wyoming Department of Health to establish protocols to control the spread of COVID-19 and educate their employees and students on prevention,” she wrote, adding that closure decisions should be made after consulting with the Health Department. “Districts should use best practices to prevent and confront any outbreak.”
Officials at Wyoming’s two largest hospitals — Wyoming Medical Center and Cheyenne Regional Medical Center — say they are prepared to handle any cases that crop up in the Equality State.
Dowell, who’s on the board of WMC, said the hospital was prepared to handle cases either from within Natrona County or those referred from elsewhere.
Photos: Empty shelves and shuttered events as coronavirus reaches Wyoming
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