Seasonal workers fuel Teton County coronavirus spread

JACKSON — Young seasonal workers are driving up COVID-19 infections through a lack of social distancing and mask wearing, health officials say.

That trend led Teton County Commissioner Greg Epstein to play “devil’s advocate” and ask: “Do we think that it’s actually better to have COVID burn through the 24-year-olds to 35-year-olds and just get through it?”

The short answer was “no.”

Teton County Health Department Director Jodi Pond said that such an approach wouldn’t achieve the level of herd immunity needed to benefit the general population, and she warned that more businesses would likely close as more workers were infected or quarantined.

The discussion came as Pond updated county commissioners on the most recent COVID-19 trends and concerns during the board’s Monday meeting.

“It’s not something we should just take the lid off and let it go,” Pond said.

Epstein emphasized that he didn’t want to take the lid off, but pointed to data showing the novel coronavirus running through that demographic already.

On Thursday, 19- to 29-year-olds accounted for 129 known cases, more than double the next highest group, 30- to 39-year-olds, with 59 cases, according to the county’s emergency management dashboard. Those two age groups combined account for about 57% of total cases to date.

“It seems like the horse is already out of the barn,” Epstein said.

But Pond said investigating and quarantining close contacts tamps down the spread. On Thursday, 174 people were under quarantine orders. Pond told commissioners that roughly 60% of them are turning out to be positive, showing how cases are being caught and isolated.

Pond also described behaviors fueling the spread: everything from carpooling to the river to mingling at late-night venues to having backyard barbecues, all without physical distancing and masks.

Commissioner Mark Newcomb asked if younger people were obeying quarantine. Pond said that once contacted, they take it seriously and follow orders.

She added that 20-somethings aren’t entirely to blame. A restaurant worker, for example, might have been infected by a tourist, or vice versa. Now that the virus is so widespread, it’s impossible to tell which direction it’s traveling in, she said. Both tourists and locals leaving the valley and traveling to hot spots brought the virus back in May, she said.

“We’re not here to blame anybody,” she said, “but we’re trying to contain it and keep things open.”

Fortunately, Pond said, the young crowd hasn’t been mingling with older populations.

“A lot of these cases are seasonal workforce that aren’t going home to their parents or grandparents because they don’t live here,” she said. “Otherwise, I think we would have already seen the spread in our older population and our hospitalization rates higher.”