After months when Johnson County saw very little coronavirus activity, the community’s luck seems to have run out as the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases in the county has grown by 74% in the past month.
As of Tuesday, there are 14 active cases of the coronavirus in the community, including two patients hospitalized at Johnson County Healthcare Center with the virus. The total number of laboratory-confirmed cases since the pandemic began stood at 40 — up from 23 cases last month at this time.
“It’s a disturbing trend,” said Dr. Mark Schueler, Johnson County public health officer. “My first concern is, is this the end of this wave or are we on the verge of something worse? If so, it’s going to be a challenge to do contact tracing and potentially handle higher numbers of hospital patients.”
The local trend mimics statewide growth of the virus. In the last week, the state has set and broken numerous daily records, including the record for the most number of positive cases a day and the number of active cases.
The local uptick prompted the Johnson County Emergency Operations Center to warn last week of “alarming uptick” in COVID-19 cases, noting that four people associated with the Willow Creek assisted living facility had tested positive for the virus.
“This is exactly what we don’t want,” Schueler said. “We have other assisted living homes, the Amie Holt Care Center, the veterans home. If that were to happen in those facilities, we’d be rapidly overwhelmed. The residents aren’t really going in and out, but the staff are, and they are the vector.”
Outside of that cluster of cases, however, the rest of the active cases in the community are were traced to a variety of functions and locations, including out-of-state travel, hosting out-of-state travelers, attending dinner parties and weddings, and gathering at local establishments.
Last Friday, Johnson County Healthcare Center marketing director Marcy Schueler wrote in a Facebook post that there had been another COVID-related death in the county. On Tuesday, Dr. Schueler said that the state Department of Health had not made a final determination on whether that death would be deemed a COVID-related death.
“I think it is fair to say it was a COVID-related death,” Dr. Schueler said. “I don’t know how the official tally will eventually turn out. We know that this person had the virus and that they died. Causality is something that is difficult to determine, so I anticipate there will be some discussion with the state health department, and it may take some time before we have the answer.”
According to the Department of Health, if death certificates do not describe COVID-19 as either causing or contributing to a person’s death, those deaths are not included in Wyoming’s count of coronavirus-related deaths.
As the number of cases grows, one positive note is that testing is more widely available than it has been at any time to this point.
There are several local health care providers that now offer the rapid COVID tests, which provide results in hours rather than days. And, both the state of Wyoming lab and commercial labs have increased their testing capacity, meaning that tests that are sent out are coming back in 24 to 48 hours. At times this summer, those test results were taking up to seven business days.
Schueler said that testing is available and “encouraged” for anyone who is symptomatic or who knows they may have been exposed to the virus.
“We are at a time we need to look at a better way of controlling the spread,” Schueler said. “I think we’ve done a mediocre job overall with infection control measures. There are those people who are committed and on board and others who don’t feel it’s necessary, and I think that’s contributed to the spread of infection.”
Johnson County nurse manager Trisha Thompson said that it is more important than ever that local residents abide facial covering recommendations, practice good hand washing hygiene, social distance to the extent possible and avoid large groups.
The goal, according to both Schueler and Thompson, is to avoid getting into a situation where the number of very sick people in the community overwhelms local health care providers and resources.
Schueler said that the coronavirus is spiking statewide and regionally, meaning that local physicians may not be able to transfer critically ill patients to larger facilities.
Last week, Johnson County Healthcare Center was approached by a hospital in Billings asking if they could transfer some patients to Buffalo because they were getting low on beds. That did not ultimately happen, but it does speak to the strain that the entire health care system is facing.
“Some of the neighboring hospitals have seen pretty high census numbers, and that creates a stress on the whole region,” Schueler said. “Which is another reason we can’t get overwhelmed if other hospitals can’t pitch in.”
“We are really just asking the public to be vigilant,” Thompson said. “My concern is what’s going to happen if we start to see these cases grow. It will affect our community, schools and businesses. I know people think that wearing a mask is their individual right, but it’s for the greater good of the community and helping people live as normal lives as possible under the circumstances.”