CASPER — Health care workers in Fremont County are seeing younger and sicker coronavirus patients as the disease continues its spread there, and officials urge residents to stay home as much as possible.
“Just from personal experience, it’s been eyeopening, how sick these patients can really get,” Dr. Mel Meyer, an ER doctor and the chief of staff at SageWest, the Lander hospital treating coronavirus patients in Fremont County.
Fremont County has 38 confirmed cases of coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19. It’s home to the largest cluster in the state, with well over a dozen patients tied to the Showboat Retirement Center in Lander.
With a lower population than Natrona or Laramie counties, it has the third-most known patients, behind Laramie County’s 48 and Teton County’s 44.
Treating the most serious of those patients has fallen to SageWest, a privately owned, for-profit hospital that has campuses in both Lander and Riverton.
The Lander facility has become the coronavirus-specific location, while Riverton takes everybody else. That wasn’t exactly a planned move, Meyer said, but because Showboat is in Lander, it was a natural shift.
Because of the high number of cases and the fact that many of them are older, the Lander hospital is the hardest hit facility in Wyoming.
Statewide, the number of known coronavirus cases has steadily ticked upward while hospitalizations remain relatively low: about 15 percent of the 221 statewide cases.
Cade Maestas, the Lander city council’s president, said that roughly a third of the hospitalizations in Wyoming have been at SageWest (a hospital spokeswoman declined to discuss how many people have been hospitalized).
Maestas visited SageWest last weekend and watched as an intensive care nurse spent five minutes donning protective gear. He said the hospital has expanded its number of isolation rooms from four to 12 and is preparing to expand it further (a hospital spokeswoman again declined to give specifics).
There have been no known deaths caused by COVID-19 in Wyoming.
The disease does not kill cleanly: It attacks your respiratory system and causes shortness of breath, a dry cough and fever.
It typically begins in the nose, and if it can be contained to the upper respiratory area — before the lungs — it’s typically more mild. But if it goes deeper into the body, “it can trigger a more severe phase of the disease,” according to Bloomberg.
The virus can then begin to destroy your lungs, and your body’s efforts to fight it can further damage the organ, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Damaged blood vessels can leak into the lungs, drowning the sacs in your lungs and choking your blood stream of oxygen. Your lungs become covered with fluid, and you can’t breathe without a ventilator.
Maestas said hospital officials told the visiting city leaders that “by the time (parents are) in here, you’ve failed to do your jobs.”
“We need to keep people home, we need to keep people social distancing, we need to get them washing their hands, get them staying away from each other,” he said. “We can’t have more people in the hospitals.”
Officials across the state have warned repeatedly that a major reason why people need to stay home is to not overload the state’s health care facilities.
The concern is that overwhelmed systems won’t be able to deal with more run-of-the-mill ailments and that health care workers won’t be able to keep up. Maestas said there was a similar concern in Lander.
“We’re the Wild West frontier; we have limited staff and resources,” he said. “By the time we need help, there won’t be anywhere to pull help from.”
Meyer said the hospital has launched a telehealth program to get more intensive care capabilities in the hospital.
In 24 years of practicing emergency medicine, he said he’d never seen anything like this.
“So anytime influenza goes through, we have some sick people, absolutely, but not a bunch,” he said. “Just random numbers, we might have one or two patients that are sick from that in the hospital. We have three or four (times) that right now. This disease is hitting really hard right now.”
When COVID-19 initially migrated beyond China, the research largely pointed to the older populations as the most susceptible to severe forms of the disease and that younger people had less to worry about. That’s proven to be less true beyond China.
The disease is still most dangerous for older people, but Meyer said the disease hasn’t discriminated in Fremont County as it was expected to. “The push is the elderly, they’re a lot more prone to have complications,” he said.
“It’s hitting younger people, too. We’ve got some young people in the hospital as well.”
He said he was surprised by the amount of younger people infected. He said the hospital was seeing the conventional COVID-19 patients — older people with pre-existing health concerns — and younger people who were previously healthy.
Like Maestas, he urged people to stay home as much as possible and to practice good hygiene.
While Fremont County has experienced a wave of cases — which are almost certainly an undercount because of limited testing — the worst is yet to come.
“Oh, it’s absolutely going to get worse before it gets better,” Maestas said. “If we were to fall off right now, we would be an anomaly in the entire world.”