JACKSON, Wyo. — When Mckenzie Myers’ friends visited Jackson recently, they were “shocked” to learn that coronavirus was present at all, let alone in high quantities.
Myers wasn’t surprised. She had just been diagnosed with COVID-19, and was under a state-mandated quarantine. She couldn’t see her friends, couldn’t even leave her property without risking criminal charges. She still can’t.
“People are coming here without realizing that this is affecting our tiny little town,” Myers said.
Myers tested positive for COVID-19 July 1. Her symptoms were mild — she felt feverish, achy, and tired for a few days, but nothing severe. What has surprised her isn’t the disease itself, she said, but its ripple effect.
Coronavirus has now affected nearly everyone in her life. She has two roommates who are now both under mandatory quarantine with her. Two of her coworkers, with whom she made close contact, are also under quarantine orders — one hasn’t been able to see her child for nearly two weeks. Two of her friends also contracted the disease.
“The far-reaching implications of this disease are really eye-opening,” Myers said. “I didn’t realize how many people you affect if you get sick.”
At 26 years old, Myers and her friends are now in the majority of people in Teton County with COVID-19. At a COVID community update Friday afternoon, Teton Health District Officer Travis Riddell said young people account for the highest number of cases in the county.
Myers likely contracted the virus after riding in a car with her close friend. That friend doesn’t know where she got it. She agreed to talk to Buckrail but asked to remain anonymous.
“I thought of myself as a pretty conscientious member of the community,” she said. “I was trying to do a good job… But when you test positive and you have to start contact tracing, you realize [your contacts are] more people than you thought.”
She is quarantining alone, with just her rescue dog to keep her company. Her boyfriend and his five roommates are now under mandatory quarantine, separately. One of her three jobs is as a babysitter, and she feels lucky and grateful she listened to her symptoms and got tested instead of agreeing to babysit last Monday.
She has also battled feelings of guilt. Community spread is present in Jackson, which means she could have gotten it anywhere, from anyone. Still, “when you hear you’re going to have such an impact on friends’ and employers’ lives, it’s definitely hard,” she said.
“The worst part is the impact you have on others — realizing the people you put in a vulnerable situation.”
The work of that impact, of contact tracing and ordering quarantines and administering tests, falls almost entirely on the Health Department. Teton County is in the midst of another spike — it has been for several weeks now. As of Monday morning, there are 26 active cases. All of those cases have contacts. Sixty-eight people are under mandated quarantine. Is it overwhelming at times?
“Oh, yeah,” said Health Department Director Jodie Pond.
The Health Department recently recorded nine new cases in one day. Health Department nurses and contact tracers have to track down every single person each of those cases has made close contact with.
“We’ve had some cases that had upwards of 30 contacts,” Pond said.
The work is relentless. And there is no end in sight.
“I think the hardest part is in the first wave, things were shutting down. People weren’t coming here,” Pond said. For weeks this spring, Teton County worked to build the infrastructure to handle COVID-19 cases. And town was quiet.
“Now, with everything open, we just don’t see an end in sight,” Pond said.
On a state level, cases in Wyoming continue to climb. Twenty-one people have died from COVID-related issues. The state reported 26 new lab-confirmed cases in one day last week.
“Our numbers keep rising. I think that’s of concern,” Governor Mark Gordon said at a press conference last week. “We don’t want to see the progress that we’ve made unravel. We’ve seen that happen in other states.”
Myers and her quarantine crew have now entered a world full of dichotomies and contradictions. On one hand, they see a Health Department working “tirelessly every day to try to keep our town safe” and slow the spread of COVID-19, Myers said.
On the other, said roommate Hannah Trask, is a world full of people who ” are just going about life as usual.”
“Our first night of quarantine, the rodeo was sold out,” Trask said. “We just sat there and listened to the crowd roaring. We state-mandated can’t leave our house, and there are 600 people sitting in the rodeo grounds.”
Then there’s leadership. “We get this really official document with our address and names saying we can face criminal prosecution for leaving our property,” Myers said. Meanwhile, “our county has had trouble being able to pass a mask ordinance.”
The Town of Jackon did pass an emergency mask ordinance last week, but state approval for a county-wide mask order has yet to come.
“It feels like a really imbalanced system,” Myers said.
Another ripple: neither Myers nor her roommates or quarantined friends are making any money. They all work in the service industry. Service industry employees do not have the luxury of staying home if they feel at-risk — only if they get sick, at which point they lose their earnings for at least two weeks. And if cases continue to climb, another shut down would completely eliminate their livelihoods.
“This is the time of year where we make most of our money,” Trask said. “It’s really scary.”
Trask admits she was guilty of complacency before the pandemic affected her — and she’s not even sick, just under mandated quarantine because of her proximity to Myers. Still, she has seen first-hand how serious COVID-19 is.
“The implications go so far beyond being sick,” she said.
Compared to hot spots like Florida and Arizona, Teton County’s numbers might seem small. “But for us, it’s a lot,” Pond said. “We could be very overwhelmed. Our hospital could be overwhelmed. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll have enough hospital beds. It’s just a lot.”
The lesson? Take this seriously, Myers and her friends all said.
“And wear a mask.”
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