COVID-19 comes to Centennial: (and goes … ?)

A cluster of bars, businesses and homes sits at the base of the Snowy Range mountains. More dwellings dot the wooded drainages and windswept prairie nearby. Welcome to Centennial, population 270.

With its off-the-beaten-path location, it’s not an obvious candidate for a COVID-19 outbreak. 

“What are the chances of this coming to Centennial?” Ken Stearns, the Centennial Valley Community Church’s pastor, said. “Our way of life up here is social distancing.”

But come COVID-19 did. 

Albany County’s first documented patient with the disease was Centennial resident Mark Armstrong. He received test results showing he had the disease on March 25, by which point he was already feeling better following more than a week of isolation and quarantine, he told WyoFile in a March 27 phone interview. 

On Tuesday, Albany County received two more positive COVID-19 test results. The second two patients are not connected to the first, or to each other, Albany County Emergency Management Coordinator Aimee Binning told WyoFile. All three patients isolated themselves once they began to feel sick, Binning said. 

Armstrong lives alone a half a mile from his nearest neighbor, he said. That’s about the same distance he has to walk — and haul supplies — up to his house from the road.

Even with all that isolation, though, Armstrong had a unique vulnerability to COVID-19 exposure — a penchant for politicking. The 63-year-old is campaigning for the U.S. Senate. 

Armstrong, the grandson of one-time University of Wyoming football coach and All-American player John Corbett, is running as a Republican underdog against longtime Wyoming politician Cynthia Lummis for the seat being vacated by Sen. Mike Enzi.

He was on the campaign trail the week before he began feeling sick. He visited towns in southern Wyoming including Rawlins, Rock Springs, Kemmerer and even the hamlet of Superior, he said. He then traveled to Jackson and the Teton County Republican Party’s inaugural Patriot’s Day Dinner on Friday, March 13. The next day he made the drive back to Centennial. 

On Sunday, he felt tired but not sick, he said. “It was a long drive home that kind of wore me out,” Anderson said. He attended a worship service and a potluck at the Centennial Valley Community Church. He also attended a meeting of the Centennial Valley Volunteer Fire Department, of which he is a member.

On Monday he felt feverish and ended his outings, he said. “As soon as I started feeling bad I self isolated,” he said. On Tuesday his condition worsened. He had a high fever, a runny nose and sore throat. He was often short of breath, he said. On Wednesday, March 18, he drove to Laramie, and was tested at Stitches Urgent Care. 

The test results came back positive a week later, he said. By that time, he was already feeling better.

Though 63, Armstrong is a backcountry skier and cyclist who chops his own firewood. But even on Friday, two days after the test results came back and after many of the worst symptoms had diminished, Armstrong said he still felt weak enough that he was running expensive electric heat in his house to avoid the physical exertion of moving firewood.

“The disease is nasty,” he said. “I hope I didn’t spread it around.” 

Once Armstrong got his positive test results, he received calls from officials with Albany County Public Health as well as the Wyoming Department of Health. The state health officials interviewed him about recent close contacts, which a DOH document defines as being within six feet for a “prolonged period of time.” 

There are around 10 people at DOH conducting such contact tracing, agency spokeswoman Kim Deti told WyoFile. The state continues to investigate contacts of those who test positive, Deti said, though a sharp increase in cases might hinder officials’ ability to keep that up.

Officials contact those who were in close contact with the positive patient and issue an “isolation order,” Deti said.

Armstrong doesn’t know where he caught the disease, he said. “If it wasn’t an encounter here in Centennial then I contacted it in Teton County,” he said. 

An encounter in Jackson sticks in his mind: Walking his two dogs around the square, Armstrong was approached by a man who asked if he could pet the canines. Afterward, they shook hands. “I’m running for office,” he said, “if somebody sticks their hand out, I’m going to shake it.”

To date, there are 26 confirmed cases in Teton County. The county and its seat Jackson are among the state’s COVID-19 hot spots so far. 

On Tuesday, Alex Muromcew, the chairman of the Teton County Republican Party, told WyoFile health officials had not informed him that an attendee of the Patriot’s Day dinner had tested positive for COVID-19. A reporter’s call was the first word he’d had, he said, and to his knowledge other guests had not come down with symptoms. 

“I would like to think that anything that happened happened after the dinner,” Muromcew said. Friday, March 13, the night of the event, came on the cusp of widespread closures both in Wyoming and nationally. Jackson’s famed ski resort closed early for the season two days later. 

“This was back when we weren’t supposed to have gatherings of more than 250 people,” Muromcew said. There [were] roughly 100 people in attendance, he said. The keynote speaker, former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, swapped an in-person appearance for a speech over video conference after he put himself in self quarantine. 

Both Lummis and Armstrong spoke at the event, according to photographs posted to social media. 

Armstrong doesn’t think he infected anyone in Centennial because he isolated himself as soon as he felt sick, he said. Health officials think people carrying the virus can spread it before they become symptomatic, but believe spread is more likely following the onset of symptoms like coughing and sneezing. 

Stearns, the Centennial pastor, learned his parishioner had come down with COVID-19 via a text message from Armstrong. The text was timely, Stearns said — he and other church leaders were already discussing whether to stop gathering for services. Armstrong’s case sealed the decision. Stearns now uploads recordings of his services online, and is waiting on federal recommendations to guide his decision to reopen.

“Can you imagine the Centennial Valley Church being the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak?” he asked. 

Parishioners who came in close contact with Armstrong during his visit “hunkered down and quarantined,” Stearns said, including himself. “I’m sure I shook his hand,” Stearns said. “We stood around the door and talked.” 

To date, no one in the congregation has developed symptoms, Stearns said. 

Tom Kern, the Centennial Valley Volunteer Fire Department chief, is a member of the congregation. When Kern learned Armstrong was sick, he “went over to the fire station and sanitized the equipment and then basically went home,” Stearns said. 

The firefighters who had contact with Armstrong were “ready to quarantine,” Kern wrote in an email to WyoFile. An official with Albany County Health contacted the department and said that because Armstrong wasn’t showing symptoms when he attended the meeting at the department, “they should be alright,” Kern wrote. 

To date, no firefighters have shown signs of having the virus, he said. But even the possibility of contagion illustrates the unique hazards COVID-19 brings to a rural area. 

Centennial’s isolated residents rely on the fire department as medical first responders. There are no health care facilities in Centennial, Armstrong said. The hospital in Laramie is more than 30 miles away. 

Kern’s department lacks protective equipment, he said, and so they intended to let Laramie’s fire department answer any calls involving flu-like symptoms. Responders coming from Laramie significantly lengthens response times.

“Hopefully fire calls we will try and respond to,” Kern wrote. 

It’s been more than two weeks since Armstrong brought the virus home. Because of the lack of testing, Armstrong was Albany County’s only documented case for six days, though health professionals say testing numbers aren’t remotely representative of the realities of the disease’s spread. 

Armstrong worries about the economic health of the small town, which makes much of its living from winter and summer recreationists, he said.

Members of the community reached out to him to offer delivery of food and supplies, Armstrong said. “People are pulling together and helping one another and making sure that the people that are immunocompromised or elderly don’t have to go into town,” he said. 

Armstrong is fine, he said. “I’ve got a freezer full of meat. Deer and elk,” he said. “I’ve got plenty of milk and I’ve got powdered milk if I run out of regular milk.” 

He looks forward to being able to campaign again, he said, though he worries a long COVID-19 outbreak will make it difficult for a grassroots candidate with limited funds. “It’s going to be hard to say, ‘I can’t shake your hand, come vote for me,’” he said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.