Transients, others quarantine in Riverton COVID camp

This former "man camp" on the Wind River Indian Reservation is being used as a quarantine facility for people believed to have been exposed to the coronavirus. While first established for tribal members among Riverton's transient population, the camp has since opened its doors to reservation residents concerned about exposing family members to the illness. As of May 15, 16 people were housed in the camp. (Photos by Clair McFarland, Riverton Ranger)

RIVERTON — As of Friday afternoon, 16 people were quarantined in a man camp abutting Arapahoe School on the Wind River Indian Reservation. 

The camp was offered initially to tribal members among Riverton’s transient population who tested positive for coronavirus after being identified through the contact network of one man who died April 20 after contracting the virus. 

Transients in Riverton are seen commonly in public areas such as Riverton City Park, the Riverton Branch Library, and the Rails to Trails bike path. Some are often cited by police for public intoxication. 

However, some of those now in the quarantine zone were not extracted from the Riverton-area transient community. 

“Some of them are people who may have a problem with drinking, but don’t want to expose their family or expose elders” to the virus, said Northern Arapaho tribal health officer Dr. Paul Ebbert in a Friday interview with The Ranger. 

When asked the best medical policy for combatting coronavirus in patients with alcohol addiction in quarantine, Ebbert said it’s not wise to deny alcohol altogether. 

“We have in some cases brought in some beer, early on. Currently we’re not doing that,” he said. “We have had to prescribe withdrawal medications to several people.” 

The medications are kept on hand near the site. 

Ebbert said withdrawal doesn’t make the COVID-19 illness any more dangerous, necessarily, but it can compound symptoms to a miserable level in symptomatic patients. 

“And it also makes it difficult to separate which symptoms are due to the virus and which are due to the withdrawal,” he said. 

The Intertribal Business Council and the Wind River Cares clinic are funding the care of the isolated residents. 

When first isolating transients, county and tribal authorities used the Wind River Hotel and Casino, which has been closed since March to avoid large gatherings prone to viral spread. 

However, Fremont County Incident Command Team information officer Mike Jones, who also is a Fremont County Commissioner, said the casino was too close to Riverton, and residents kept “walking back into town.” 

The sale of alcohol is allowed in Riverton, but not on the reservation, on the edge of which the casino sits. The man camp is several miles farther from Riverton than the casino. 

“Actually most of this group has been very good,” said Ebbert of his most recent quarantine subject. “We’ve had a lot less trouble with this group than we’ve had with people leaving the casino, or not following isolation in the community.” 

Two people have walked away from quarantine since the man camp was established. One left the quarantine zone against orders but came back. Another person left the hospital without returning to the camp as directed. 

“He went to the Riverton hospital, and when he was released he did not go to the man camp. He went back to his house,” said Ebbert. Other than those two, “we’ve not had trouble with people not staying through their quarantine.” 

Still, Bureau of Indian Affairs officers are on scene to discourage quarantine breaks by reminding residents that tribal health order violation is punishable by up to 30 days in jail. That penalty is more stringent off the reservation. The state health orders carry a violation sentence of up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines. 

Quarantine orders by health officers are “essentially a court order,” the doctor said, citing the expanded powers of health officers during recognized pandemics. 

BIA agents have another role at the camp: keeping people out who aren’t supposed to be there, especially those bearing medically unsanctioned alcohol or other substances of abuse. 

“We haven’t had a whole lot of trouble with that, but we have had trouble,” Ebbert said, noting that past intruders tried to bring in alcohol. 

As many as 20 people have stayed in the camp at one time, and the numbers fluctuate between 12 and 20, ordinarily. Not all residents are symptomatic. The state guideline for isolation orders coronavirus-positive individuals to quarantine for 14 days, but the reservation’s method is strictly test-based. 

“You initially are quarantined for 14 days, but at 10 or 11 we start testing you, and we don’t let you off quarantine until you have two negatives,” said Ebbert, concluding that “the people who are done with their quarantine are probably some of the safest people in town, because they have an immunity and are COVID-negative.” 

Initially, Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee orchestrated transportation of patients to the camp, which was assembled over the weekend of April 25-27. 

Riverton Police Department agents also have helped with the task. Ebbert said law enforcement agents aren’t always available to deliver people who test positive. 

“It’s hit and miss every day,” he said. “We have to struggle to find who can transport this person there.” 

The doctor said transportation was the largest challenge of the quarantine effort. 

“You want to do it safely, obviously. You don’t just throw somebody in a car with somebody else. But getting people there has been the biggest issue.”