COVID-19 task forces begin work to address immediate, long-term uncertainties


CHEYENNE - Two weeks removed from the confirmation of Wyoming's first coronavirus case, every sector of society has rapidly changed.

Wyoming's number of confirmed cases, which jumped from 28 on Monday to 49 as of Wednesday evening, is expected continue to rise over the next few days. In an effort to reduce community spread, state officials ordered the closure of nonessential personal service businesses Tuesday.

In a news conference Wednesday, Gordon said he was trying to avoid issuing a shelter-in-place order.

"We are not trying to shut down Wyoming, but your voluntary actions and discipline will make the difference on whether we can slow the spread of COVID-19," Gordon said.

As Wyomingites are asked to flatten the curve, the virus' long-term implications remain unclear, but state leaders and experts have started discussions on those medium- and long-term uncertainties.

The talks have largely taken place through five COVID-19 task forces, each led by one of the five statewide elected officials. The task forces, which Gordon announced last week, will each focus on one of five specific areas: health, education, business, transportation and state services.

A few task forces are eyeing potential aid through the roughly $2 trillion aid deal, which gained final approval from U.S. Congress, but there are plenty of questions left to be answered. With Wyoming and the world in such turbulent times, here is a rundown of what each task force will be working on to prepare for an uncertain future.

Health

The health task force, headed by the governor, has aimed to remedy the most pressing concerns of hospitals and health care centers to combat the virus. The group, which includes representatives from the Wyoming Department of Health, the Wyoming Hospital Association and the Wyoming Medical Society, has focused on providing COVID-19 testing guidelines and developing an inventory of the state's hospital bed capacity.

In a news conference Wednesday, Wyoming Department of Health Director Mike Ceballos said the state has issued a request for proposal to gather data on potential hospital bed needs.

"We don't have numbers yet, but we are working on that task," Ceballos said.

The group has also looked for solutions on the supply side. The governor announced Wednesday the state has started distributing personal protective equipment, commonly known as PPE, to county health officials, though demand still outweighs the supply.

"Of course, it isn't everything that we need," Wyoming Department of Homeland Security Director Lynn Budd said Wednesday. "We are also opening an order through (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to try and get more PPE to everyone at the local level."

Budd was unsure of the exact number of masks, gloves and other protective equipment that had been distributed so far, but she said counties with an active COVID-19 case were getting additional materials.

Education

Following the temporary closure of Wyoming school districts through April 3, the education task force has been preparing for the possibility of a closure extension.

State Superintendent of Instruction Jillian Balow, who is chairing the task force, said one of the group's main focuses has been figuring out how the coronavirus might impact students who are at critical points in their education, such as transitioning from pre-K to kindergarten.

"The truth of the matter is that with COVID-19, our incoming kindergartners may look slightly different than they have in the past," Balow said.

The task force has begun discussing ways to address those education gaps that could emerge in the coming weeks. With University of Wyoming Interim President Neil Theobald and Wyoming Community College Commission Executive Director Sandy Caldwell in the group, its focus ranges from early child care to post-secondary career paths.

While school districts are currently slated to reopen April 3, some like Laramie County School District 1 have already prepared remote learning plans in case closures are extended. Balow said Tuesday she didn't envision every K-12 school going online, even if there is an extension.

"If we remain out of school, we see there being kind of a hybrid of opportunities for students, some that include technology, some that don't," she said.

The task force will also keep an eye on the $2 trillion stimulus package, which gained approval in Washington, to help soften the blow of the virus. Balow said the package likely will include funding Wyoming could use to boost broadband access and provide Wi-Fi hotspots to students.

Special education during the closures has also been a major topic for the task force. In the past week, the U.S. Department of Education has sent directives to states on the matter, including a memo that emphasizes "flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities." Meanwhile, the education task force is preparing for several timelines in Wyoming.

"The guidance that we've given to school districts is to make sure that their special ed faculty and leadership is working really hard as they think beyond April 3, which there have been no formal announcements yet, but as they think beyond April 3, to be thinking about a plan B that includes a diverse and dynamic education for all learners," Balow said.

An update on the school closures is expected to come in the next few days.

Business

By far the biggest of the five, the business-focused task force includes more than 30 representatives from state agencies and business associations. The task force has met only once in its entirety, largely due to the logistical challenge of getting so many on a teleconference. But subcommittees have quickly formed to tackle immediate issues while considering long-term strategies.

The task force is trying to address the widespread economic effects of the virus for both employees and businesses. State Auditor Kristi Racines, who chairs the task force, said its main priority is to ensure businesses are immediately connected with the right resources.

Last week, the governor announced Wyoming small businesses' eligibility for up to $2 million in federal economic disaster loans through the Small Business Administration. That's where the task force comes in, helping determine whether such an option works best for different businesses.

"If you're a small business without a full-time attorney on staff to try to sort through some of this, it can seem overwhelming," Racines said of the applications.

On the employee side, Racines said workers in lodging and restaurant industries have been hit especially hard, and every small business is dealing with the effects.

"Everybody's number one concern still is our health," Racines said. "But not too far behind that is 'Can I feed my family? What if I get evicted?'"

Transportation

The work of the transportation task force has spurred some immediate executive orders from the governor.

Largely due to recommendations from the task force, an order was issued last week that waives certain requirements and fees for commercial vehicles carrying supplies related to COVID-19, while another issued Tuesday provides a grace period on expired driver's licenses until June 1.

State Treasurer Curt Meier, who chairs the task force, said the Wyoming Department of Transportation has also explored ways to improve delivery of COVID-19 tests to the state lab in Cheyenne on weekends when delivery services are sparse.

The task force has also considering ways to provide additional hand sanitizers and supplies at truck stops and rest areas, but Meier said there's a backlog on ordering sanitizer until the summer at the earliest.

Much like the education task force, the transportation one will also be watching the federal stimulus package, which would be the largest in U.S. history, if approved. Meier said Wyoming could see $250 million in funding for infrastructure projects through the package.

"We know there's some stimulus money coming, but exactly how it's going to sort out depends on a lot of things," Meier said. "If we keep these quarantine measures more or less in place, you could have some projects that might get delayed."

State services

The final task force, led by Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, has been figuring out which state employees have the capabilities to work home while still providing essential services to Wyomingites.

Buchanan said the situation required striking a "delicate balance" to ensure programs like child protection services can keep operating.

The task force has held discussions with the Wyoming Department of Corrections, the Department of Workforce Services and the Wyoming Highway Patrol on what they need amid the crisis.

Perhaps most importantly, task force officials have worked closely with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to ensure the state has the capacity to help people who have lost their jobs during the outbreak. Buchanan said the group is trying to streamline the protocols for people to qualify for unemployment.

Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Director Robin Cooley said Wednesday her department has increased its staffing and workforce planning center to address the increase in people filing for unemployment.

"We're hoping to get additional phone lines in place fairly quickly so that we can start taking those claims more timely," Cooley said. "Also, when you call in, you won't get those busy signals that you're currently getting."

The department hopes to see a quick approval of emergency rules to relax eligibility requirements for unemployment, Cooley said. In the meantime, state officials will continue searching for ways to cut red tape.

"I think on every Wyoming citizen's mind is the fact that we started only about a week and a half ago with one confirmed case, and we are now at 41," Gordon said Wednesday afternoon. "But we are also thinking about what this means for the people of Wyoming.”

Advertisement