State and local officials, Ivinson Memorial Hospital and the University of Wyoming are preparing for coronavirus outbreaks in the state, as the number of cases and deaths worldwide continue to rise.
According to the Wyoming Department of Health, the virus — which is spreading in other states around the nation, and other nations around the globe — could touch Wyoming at some point.
But Albany County Emergency Coordinator Aimee Binning said there’s no reason to panic.
“Quite honestly, we’ve seen a large impact from the flu this year, and the best practices to keep you from getting the flu are the same ones to keep you from getting COVID-19,” Binning said. “Really, it’s just about having a situational awareness and understanding of what you and your family can do to stay a little healthier this year.”
Binning said emergency preparedness discussions among family members include figuring out what it will take to stay home from work, identifying friends or family members that could help out if needed, and staying abreast of CDC recommendations.
Albany County School District No. 1 is updating its health plans and closely monitoring attendance. Superintendent Jubal Yennie said there’s no shortage of resources to deal with an outbreak, but if the situation gets bad enough, it could close some or all of the county’s 15 schools.
“We had a number of flu outbreaks last year and people were getting concerned with what that threshold is for saying we need to close the school,” he said. “If we’ve got 40 or 50 percent of our students absent from school, then we probably have a community issue to address.”
Yennie said in the event of a severe outbreak, school buildings could serve as quarantine centers. If school is out for a significant period of time, ACSD No. 1 might seek a waiver — with assistance from the state superintendent — so that students would not have to make up all missed days.
“The stance right now is that if we miss days, we need to make those up,” Yennie said. “If it gets to a point where we have an outbreak and there’s a significant number of days we’re missing, then there may be some other arrangement or waiver that may occur.”
The city of Laramie released a statement directing concerned residents to the Department of Health and the CDC.
“(The city) has plans in place for maintaining municipal operations in the event of public health emergencies like communicable disease,” the release says. “During the advent of any public health situation, municipal government management and elected officials review, update and implement those plans as necessary to preserve the continuity of essential municipal services.”
State responseDuring a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Mark Gordon said state officials and agencies are preparing for the possibility of an outbreak.
“There are no reported cases in Wyoming at this time, and the risk to our residents from the disease remains low,” Gordon said. “While the risk remains low, it is becoming increasingly likely that COVID-19 will eventually spread to the state.”
He added the health department and the state’s Office of Homeland Security are working together to ensure necessary supplies, equipment and procedures are ready to go should the need arise. Gordon said the coronavirus taskforce established by President Donald Trump and headed by Vice President Mike Pence is in contact with state, local and tribal governments to coordinate the same.
State Superintendent Jillian Balow spoke after Gordon, saying she had been in touch with district schools and school nurses across the state.
“Every community and every school has the appropriate and necessary personnel to lead in the prevention, planning and management of the coronavirus and other diseases,” Balow said. “Schools should revisit their current practices to ensure that they are the very best practices, and make adjustments as needed. Strict adherence to the best practices that our professionals already know are the best measures for prevention.”
The Wyoming Department of Health does not currently have the ability to test for coronavirus in-state, in part because the first test kits shipped out by the CDC did not work correctly. But the department expects to be able to test for coronavirus at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory within the week.
Without widespread testing, it’s impossible to know how much the virus has spread, UW associate professor Christine Porter said. Porter holds the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health and said officials should be offering free testing.
“I would be surprised if this virus was not already in almost all states, including Wyoming,” she said. “I think we should act and assume like it is.”
University of Wyoming
COVID-19 has the potential to interfere with both campus life and the wider activities of faculty and staff abroad or who are planning to go abroad.
“At this point we don’t anticipate any disruption to our academic program this semester, but that’s all subject to change,” UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said. “People are talking about this and planning for it and taking steps to keep students, faculty, staff and the community informed.”
The university has cancelled summer study abroad programs to China and advised international students from China not to return home at this time.
UW is also identifying quarantine areas in the residence halls, evaluating planned conferences both at the university and elsewhere, and looking at alternative course delivery methods in case face-to-face instruction needs to be limited.
Before releasing a statement Monday, UW officials were in contact with students studying abroad, discussing options and sharing information with those in affected areas of Europe or South Korea. With spring break just around the corner, and international or even domestic travel on the minds of many UW students, the impact of COVID-19 on the university community is unclear.
“At this point, UW is at a very low risk of this,” Baldwin said. “But we do have people traveling and getting ready to travel, so we want to get the best information we can to everybody.”
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) is caused by a new strain of coronavirus, first identified in the Wuhan province of China. There are many older and more familiar coronaviruses, including the one responsible for the common cold, but there is no vaccine for COVID-19 given the recency of its discovery.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, spread between people in close contact. The virus travels on droplets produced and projected by people when they cough or sneeze.
“The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (‘community spread’) in some affected geographic areas,” the CDC’s website reads. “Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.”
In addition to China, where the disease originated and has killed the most people, communities in Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan are also experiencing sustained community spread.
In the U.S., there are more than 100 cases spread out across more than a dozen states. At press time Tuesday, 11 people, in Washington and California, have died.
“At this time, however, most people in the United States will have little immediate risk of exposure to this virus,” according to the CDC. “This virus is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States. However, it is important to note that current global circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic.”
There have been more than 90,000 cases of COVID-19 — and more than 3,000 deaths — since the virus began spreading. There is disagreement about how deadly the virus is because milder cases might be going unidentified and uncounted in the number of cases.
Symptoms and prevention
COVID-19 can look like a lot of other seasonal illnesses, with fever, coughing and shortness of breath typically appearing as symptoms two to 14 days after exposure.
“This is not an exotic disease we’re talking about,” said Kim Deti, spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Health. “The symptoms are quite familiar. They’re very much the same as with other respiratory illnesses.”
However, with such a new disease, public health officials must take extra steps to contain or limit the spread.
“When it’s new, we don’t know as many details, such as how easily it spreads from one person to another, or how many of the folks who become ill will have a serious illness,” Deti said. “There’s just some things we don’t know when it’s a new virus.”
Most at risk are those returning from the international locations listed above, the elderly, health-care workers, and anyone in close contact with those who have the disease, such as people living in an area with community spread.
The risk of contracting the disease in Wyoming is still low, but there are steps everyone can take to stay healthy. Ivinson’s infection control and prevention nurse, Lisa Rambo, shared a few recommendations that will sound familiar to anyone practiced in avoiding the common cold.
• Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly
• Avoid touching your face, especially around the eyes, nose and mouth
• When sick, try to stay home
• Try to avoid visiting and getting together with sick people
• Clean and disinfect surfaces such as tables and desks
• When you cough, use a tissue or the crook of your elbow, and wash your hands.
Rambo said IMH is prepared to receive those with coronavirus in the emergency department. An emergency preparedness team is meeting weekly, and screening questions for those with respiratory symptoms are being implemented.
“We are frequently also in touch with the Wyoming Department of Health and monitoring the CDC,” Rambo said. “We’re updating and keeping an eye on this daily to make sure we’re being proactive and doing the correct things.”