LANDER — Nestled against the Wind River Mountain range in central Wyoming some 120 miles from the nearest interstate, Lander is not easy to get to.
And yet, COVID-19 has arrived in the town of 7,500.
With eight cases of the highly contagious virus confirmed this week and three “presumptive positive” patients being treated at the hospital, the Fremont County seat is home to the largest concentration of the virus outbreak in Wyoming — and is perhaps a harbinger of what the rest of the state can expect as the disease spreads.
Residents here say things have unfolded in head-spinning fashion. With the ground ever shifting, it’s difficult to keep up with developments, let alone make decisions. Most are remaining positive.
“Lander is an amazing community and we’ll find a way to get through this crisis together,” City Council Member Cade Maestas said Tuesday at a meeting.
The populace, city government, schools and businesses are responding to the rapidly changing news of the global pandemic in kind with rapidly evolving adaptations. On Tuesday, the Lander City Council declared a state of emergency and announced Wednesday it had moved into “level 3” of its plan. Schools have gone dark, church services are cancelled, the local Game and Fish office closed due to concerns of infected staff and a new triage tent in the Lander Medical Clinic’s parking lot greets patients. Staff at Mr. D’s, the hometown grocery store, wear blue nitrile gloves, and Crossfit Lander, a local gym, is checking out equipment for members to use at home while the business is shuttered.
Though many aspects of life appear unaffected — traffic pulses through downtown, postal workers deliver mail, people walk dogs and construction workers are on job sites — there is a sense that the town, like the rest of the world, is entering a new paradigm for what’s normal.
The positive test results confirm one thing, said RaJean Stube Fossen, Lander’s assistant mayor.
“This virus has been in our community for weeks, and we need to be very conscientious and stay healthy and keep each other healthy,” she said.
The Lander City Council convened a special meeting Tuesday morning, to declare a state of emergency and acknowledge the disruption to the local economy, danger to the public health and extensive financial loss posed by the outbreak.
As he read the declaration, Lander Mayor Monte Richardson’s voice broke, and he paused before allowing a fellow council member to finish.
“This is just hard because I’d never thought I’d be in this situation,” Richardson said, likening the disease outbreak to other landmark historical challenges. “We didn’t have to go to war in WWI and WWII, but we are at war right now I feel,” Richardson said. “We gotta protect our community.”
Council member Mike Kusiek struck a different tone.
“Folks are really pulling together and people are getting really creative,” Kusiek said. “I do believe we will get through this. That’s what we see in other parts of the world. I think being positive puts us in a much better place for that.”
In concurrence with the declaration, the council also formalized and updated a COVID-19 action plan that lays out four tiers of community response. On Wednesday morning, Lander moved into “Level 3” of the four-level plan.
Under tier three, the city adopted the new Centers for Disease and Prevention control recommendation against public gatherings of more than 10 people. The level also gives City Hall the authority to subject employees and visitors to health and temperature scans, cancels all functions at the Lander Community and Convention center through April, suspends Parks and Recreation programs and sets up CDC protocol for employees who have been exposed, go into quarantine or choose to self-isolate.
Fremont County has also formed an incident command team to support the outbreak response. On Wednesday, Undersheriff Mike Hutchison, the team’s public information officer, announced in a release that the Fremont County Emergency Council had also enacted an operations plan.
His release stated that Fremont County officials have no plans to issue any mandatory business closures. “The choice to implement any kind of closure will remain with the business owners,” the release said.
On Friday, March 13, Wyoming’s second known case of coronavirus was confirmed in an elderly patient being treated at a SageWest hospital in Lander. The patient, it was later revealed, was a resident at the Showboat Retirement Center.
Following an investigation, officials determined that community spread likely caused the patient to fall ill.
By Monday, the Lander case number jumped as seven more people — all who had direct connection to the first patient — tested positive for the virus. Two were being treated at the hospital. Seven others who had contact with the patient tested negative. Authorities placed the retirement center under quarantine.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, Lander’s SageWest Hospital confirmed in a release that it is treating three patients that are “presumptive positive” of the novel coronavirus. “These patients are in isolation at our Lander campus,” the release said.
It’s clear, however, that a limited number of tests in the region is adding to an already challenging situation and belief that the confirmed cases are just a small subset of the total infection.
At the Lander Medical Clinic and its sister clinic Western Family Care in Riverton, staff ordered and received 50 tests early in the outbreak from a private company, Jessica Firth at Lander Medical Clinic said Wednesday.
They allotted 25 to each facility, and have used 19 so far, she said. Only four results have come back — all negative. The clinic is still waiting on the remaining 15. While LabCorp told the clinic it would send new tests with the results of used ones, so far that hasn’t happened, she said. The materials they need to test patients — limited from the outset — aren’t being replenished. Supplies are limited across the nation, she said.
With only 31 tests left and a high volume of patients, Firth said, they are maintaining a very high threshold for testing. Originally only people who were showing symptoms and had traveled to known infected areas were tested. The policy shifted recently to include people showing symptoms who are at high risk for possible transmission — such as those working in health care. “We’re hopeful that if tests become more available we’ll be able to test more broadly,” she said.
“There are a lot of (patients) that don’t qualify for testing,” Dr. Ryan Firth at the clinic said. Out of an abundance of caution, he said, clinic staff are instructing patients who may have been exposed or may be showing symptoms but are otherwise low-risk to self-monitor, self-quarantine if necessary and call their doctor.
Ryan Firth said the hope is that more tests — or even different methods of testing — will soon become available.
Both SageWest and the Lander Medical Clinic/Western Family Care have enacted extra precautions in response to the outbreak. At SageWest, this entails screening incoming patients based on CDC guidance, equipping any staff dealing with potential infected patients with personal protective equipment, giving patients with respiratory illness or COVID-19 symptoms masks to limit possible exposure and implementing a zero-visitor protocol with few exceptions.
The clinic, meanwhile, has erected a temporary triage tent in the parking lot. Staff wearing masks greet vehicles and direct them to different entrances based on their apparent needs. Staff take the temperature of every person who enters the building.
Across town, other entities have also adapted to a rapidly changing crisis.
Fremont County School District #1 facilities are closed until April 3 at the earliest. The district is offering free sack breakfasts and lunches during the closure, as well as virtual and mailed remote learning materials. Central Wyoming College and Wyoming Catholic College have temporarily shuttered.
Restaurants are recalibrating. The Lander Bake Shop — a downtown hub that is routinely filled with customers — has closed its dining room but is still offering call-in and to-go orders.
Owner Angie McHenry Flint said customers have continued to patronize the bakery in that limited way. “That’s been pretty good,” she said. “It’s not the same of course as having the business open and having people come here.”
The Bake Shop employs a lot of students and young people, she said. “We’re trying really hard to stay open because of them.”
Before the outbreak, she had about 22 employees, she said. That has whittled down to closer to 15-18. Some of that is due to college students who were sent home; others volunteered to stop working. “They are concerned for their own health and safety too.”
McHenry Flint, whose husband — a teacher — and children are self-isolating at home, said it’s a tricky balance.
“It’s very stressful as a business owner because I’m looking out for my employees and my family at the same time,” she said. “I just want everyone to stay safe.”
Fremont County School District #1 board member Michelle Escudero has experienced two levels of reaction to the outbreak, she said. On the intellectual side, she understands why strict actions are necessary — after all, Lander is home to a significant population of elderly people as well as the Wyoming Life Resource Center, and it’s important to do what is necessary to safeguard the town’s denizens.
“So there’s the intellectual piece that I understand, then there’s the emotional piece of the unknown and the uncertainty,” Escudero said. “And that’s challenging for me as an individual.”
At churches in town, meanwhile, a growing need for spiritual solace is clashing with orders to minimize gatherings.
“That is the challenge of the hour,” Father James Schumacher of the Holy Rosary Catholic Parish said.
The bishop put out a statewide mandate to cancel masses, Schumacher said. Still, in Lander he has unlocked the church each day so individuals can visit and pray. He is also taking confessions — with a preference parishioners use the screen.
“People need signs of hope and things that keep up their spirits as well of course as contact with the word of God, so it’s a very very paradoxical situation,” Shumacher said. “People need hope but at the same time there is a vehement need for prudence. It’s a balance.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.