COVID Community Update: Community spread is back, but most cases ‘imported’

JACKSON, Wyo. — Teton County is in the midst of another COVID-19 update, but we’re in a “very different and much more favorable position” than the first spike, said Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell at a community update Friday afternoon.

As of 10 a.m. Friday, June 26, there are nine active cases in Teton County. One patient is in the ICU at St. John’s Healh and is “very sick at this moment,” said St. John’s CEO Paul Beaupré.

Since the first new case after a several-week lull was reported June 9, there have been 19 confirmed cases. Thirteen of those cases can be attributed to travel — either in someone visiting Jackson, or in a resident who traveled and came back. Five cases are attributed to community spread.

“Until a week ago, there was no evidence of community spread,” Riddell said. “Now we’re starting to see it.”

Of the 19 new cases, 14 are in people younger than 40. That’s not cause for celebration, Beaupré said. Young people are, so far, statistically less likely to become critically ill or die from COVID-19. But “we do not know the long-term effects of this disease as yet,” Beaupré said.

The good news is that testing is more efficient and accessible than ever, and the Teton County Health Department has continued to ramp up their contact tracing efforts. Funding from the CARES Act has allowed the Health Department to hire more full-time contact tracers and offer more access to rapid disease testing.

“We’re in a far more favorable position than other communities in our state and region,” Riddell said.

That’s not to undermine the possibility that things could get worse, Riddell said. Community spread is present. The task at hand now is learning how to live with this virus. One of the easiest ways to do that, Riddell said, is to wear a mask.

Riddell is put off by extremist views about masks: one that they’re unconstitutional, the other that they are the “salvation, without which we are sure to all perish.”

“In my position, I can’t afford the luxury of extremism,” Riddell said. Instead, masks are “an affordable solution that has the potential to make a tremendous difference,” he said.

Riddell has gotten some pressure from the business community to make masks mandatory, which could take the pressure of enforcement off of business owners. But according to state statute, public health orders must achieve their goals “by the least restrictive means possible,” Riddell said. So he’s not requiring masks — yet. He’s just strongly urging and trusting people to wear them.

“Masks are restrictive. I know because I wear one for 8-10 hours a day at work,” Riddell said. But “they’re not nearly as restrictive as another shutdown,” which is what’s at stake if COVID-19 overwhelms Teton County.

“If the trend continues, there’s a strong public health argument to be made for a mask mandate.”

Mayor Pete Muldoon shared Riddell’s sentiments in his opening remarks.

“[Masks] should not be a political thing,” Muldoon said. “It’s not a huge deal. Put it on.”

St. John’s Health saw its largest daily volume of calls since March 19, according to an update from Beaupré. On average, the COVID-19 line is getting 90 calls per day.

Beaupré said he recognizes the community’s interest in knowing where these cases are coming from and how many are “resident versus nonresident.” But as a healthcare provider, that’s not what matters.

“At St. John’s, we do not make any distinction. Every person is a human being. If they have COVID, they’re going to receive the best quality care we can give them,” Beaupré said.

Meanwhile, town is practically as busy as ever. As of June 24, hotels are at 75.9% occupancy for the coming weekend — but plenty of reservations are made the day of or on the spot, said Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Anna Olson. By this time last week, occupancy was at 65% for the coming weekend, but it ended at 81%.

“We’ve seen a very fast, robust return to tourism,” Olson said. “We also know businesses are incredibly anxious about keeping their staff safe.”

Olson said the Chamber is working with the Jackosn Hole Travel and Tourism Board and local businesses to amp up messaging about masks and social distancing, especially in anticipation of the 4th of July.

“Remember to spread out, that’s really the key message,” Olson said.

Health Department Public Health Response Coordinator Rachel Wheeler used most of her time to introduce a new contact tracing app. The app is designed to create a “digital diary” of places you’ve been that Public Health can then use to monitor where the disease may have spread if you become infected.

“If you’re anything like me, I forgot what I did yesterday, let alone five days from today,” Wheeler said.

App developers gave a live demo and assured viewers that the app was developed with privacy as its top priority.

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