EVANSTON — As of Thursday, Nov. 19, a countywide mask mandate is in effect in Uinta County. The mandate was requested by Uinta County Public Health Officer Dr. Mike Adams and approved by State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist on Wednesday afternoon.
The move comes as multiple counties across the state have implemented similar mandates and after Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said in a press conference last week that a statewide order was under consideration, along with other restrictive measures, in light of the state’s worsening COVID-19 crisis. County health officers from 21 of the state’s 23 counties asked Gordon to issue just such a statewide mandate in a letter sent earlier this week, which was also signed by leaders of the Wyoming Medical Society and Wyoming Hospital Association. The Wyoming Department of Health website notes countywide mask orders have also been approved in Teton, Laramie, Albany, Natrona, Sweetwater, Sheridan, Park, Lincoln, Goshen, Sublette, Hot Springs, Carbon, Washakie and Converse counties.
The order itself, posted on uintacounty.com, states that cloth face coverings are required for all adults “outside of their home or other place of residence “when inside or in line to enter any retail or commercial business or government facility, when obtaining healthcare services or when utilizing public transportation of any kind. The order applies to employees and patrons and businesses are ordered to post signs about the face mask requirements in a “clearly visible location” near the entrance.
Minors are exempt from the orders, although “minors three years old and older are encouraged to wear face coverings.” There are also exemptions for those working alone in private offices not visited by others, for those with health conditions that would prevent the use of a face covering or for those seated at a table to dine in a restaurant provided they are at least 6 feet away from other patrons at other tables.
The Uinta County Republican Party has challenged the authority of Adams and Harrist to issue an order to “force mask wearing on the free people of Uinta County,” calling for immediate withdrawal of the order. Their resolution calls on the Uinta County Commissioners to nullify the order if Adams does not immediately rescind it. The Wyoming Republican Party passed a resolution last week calling on Gordon to rescind the state of emergency that has been in effect in Wyoming since March.
The news of the orders comes less than a day after Rocky Mountain Care (RMC) Director Nancy Bunot said she would like to see such a mandate enacted to help protect the most vulnerable, including the 45 residents of the Evanston long-term care facility. Speaking during a Zoom meeting with the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, local business owners and managers and Wyoming Department of Health Director Mike Ceballos, Bunot said the situation throughout the county and state has reached the point where they have again had to institute restrictions on visitation for residents because of fear of infection. More than half of the 176 COVID-19 related deaths in Wyoming have been in residents of long-term care facilities, the majority of which have been reported in the past month.
Bunot said many residents had at one time been unconcerned about the pandemic but now “they’re scared.” She also said staff members have been in tears because they’re afraid of unknowingly bringing the virus into the facility and infecting patients, especially in light of the explosion of cases locally and the reluctance of some community members to do their part to slow the spread.
Bunot said they have been fortunate to this point not to have COVID-19 spreading at the facility but “we feel it’s not if but when” that happens. A similar sentiment was echoed by D’Andrea Chichester, director of the Youth Alternative Home Association, who said staff at that facility are also concerned about unknowingly bringing COVID to other staff members and the young people residing there.
“We’re trying to keep it at bay, but we feel we’re going to lose that fight fairly quickly,” said Chichester, who also said she doesn’t understand why the community isn’t pulling together to do everything possible to fight the novel coronavirus. “The community pulls together to help people impacted by fires or disasters or other illnesses,” she said, “but where’s the community pulling together on this?”
Others on that call said their employees were scared to get tested to help control the spread of the virus because of fears of lost income from missing work during the required isolation period or from quarantines due to exposure. Dave Bassett with Wyoming Workforce Services, however, explained that unemployment insurance is available for those who miss work due to COVID quarantine or isolation orders. Bassett said the turnaround time for approval of such claims is fairly rapid and, due to the overwhelming number of cases being handled by county public health offices, only self-attestation is required — meaning an individual does not have to have documentation from public health to prove they’ve been quarantined or placed under isolation orders.
Bassett stressed, however, that those who are quarantined or isolated should not break those orders to go to the Workforce Services office in person and should instead just call and someone will help them through the process. Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said that, although her office is dealing with huge numbers of new cases every day at this point, there is a new email address where people can submit questions or requests for documentation of isolation or quarantine status. That email address is [email protected]
For those hesitant to be tested because of concerns about the cost of testing, at Evanston Regional Hospital there is zero out-of-pocket cost for those utilizing the self-referral drive-through testing. For insured individuals, the insurance company is billed $25 for the state lab PCR test and $80 for the rapid antigen test, and insurance covers those costs in full. For the uninsured, ERH applies for federal funds to cover those costs so there are still no costs to individuals.
For those who visit the emergency room, there are other tests that may be ordered that would result in other costs and standard ER visit fees would apply.
The pandemic is currently wreaking havoc throughout Wyoming and much of the Intermountain West, as states throughout the west landed on Forbes’ list of the most dangerous states to visit earlier this week. Wyoming was ranked as the fourth most dangerous due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and the associated strain on hospitals, healthcare workers and businesses. Proffit said far more businesses are facing closures and difficulty remaining open due to ill employees than were impacted by public health orders in the spring. She also reiterated that any local businesses closed due to COVID infections have been closed due to either lack of staff or company policies and not due to local public health offices ordering closures.
“We here in the county have not closed any businesses due to COVID,” Proffit said.
One such business was closed earlier this week. Liz White, Vice President of Public Relations with Loaf ‘n Jug, sent a notice to the Herald stating their Evanston store was closed after an employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“We closed the store on Tuesday, Nov. 17, to be cleaned and sanitized by an industrial cleaning crew,” reads the statement. “The store will reopen in the next few days. We are grateful to all our customers for their patience and understanding during this time.”
During the Wednesday Zoom meeting, WDH Director Ceballos said he is very worried about the upcoming holiday season when he fears asymptomatic people may visit with and spread illness to elderly family members. The CDC has strongly recommended that people not travel for the Thanksgiving holiday and public health experts urge the public to have smaller gatherings, wear masks and maintain distance between separate households if people do gather.
Stephanie Pyle, WDH senior administrator, said she’s also very concerned about the current situation in Wyoming. Pyle stressed how important it is for the public to comply with masking, distancing, getting tested, and isolating and quarantining.
“We have to do all of those in concert with one another,” she said, noting that not only the physical health of residents but the economic health of the state depends on it. “These measures are critical in helping businesses stay open,” she said.
Pyle also emphasized the importance of those measures to keep schools open. She explained that as case numbers in general have increased, there have also been upticks in the number of cases reported in K-12 schools, though it is believed many infections have occurred not in the school setting itself, where mask and distancing requirements are better enforced, but during extracurricular or after-school activities.
RMC’s Bunot drove home that request with her plea to Uinta County residents. “It’s time for all of us to take care of each other and do the right thing for our community.”
The number of confirmed cases in Wyoming has increased by approximately 3,000 since Monday morning, with 1,260 new cases reported on Tuesday alone. The Wyoming Information Sharing Platform reports 323 active cases in Uinta County as of press time on Thursday, Nov. 19.