Air travel is picking up in Jackson Hole, bringing with it economic opportunity — and new COVID-19 cases.
As of Friday afternoon’s community update with elected officials and public health representatives, five people who have landed at Jackson Hole Airport have tested positive for the coronavirus after deplaning.
“Some of those people were wearing masks on their flights, and some of those people were not symptomatic at the time they departed and became symptomatic midflight,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said during the update.
According to Riddell, Teton County has seen an “uptick” after several weeks in late May and early June without a new case recorded.
Since June 9, the day the first case was reported after that lull, the county has seen 19 cases, with 11 active and the others recovered after at least 10 days in isolation. One person is currently hospitalized at S=t. John’s Health due to the virus.
Thirteen of those 19 cases are related to travel, whether a tourist or resident bringing the virus from elsewhere. One is from a contact with a known infected person, and five are attributed to community spread, meaning the origin can’t be traced.
“Until a week ago there was no evidence of community spread or transmission from known cases to other members within our community,” Riddell said. “But in the last week we are now starting to see both of those things happen.”
That may seem worrisome, but Riddell and Rachael Wheeler, public health coordinator at the Teton County Health Department, said health care infrastructure is in better shape than when the virus hit the valley the first time. Testing was paltry in April and May, but capacity has ramped up, better equipping public health officials to identify cases early.
Ample testing allows them to find cases and notify people who contacted that infected person. During the update, Riddell said the department had asked 31 people to quarantine because they may have interacted with a known case of COVID-19.
The uptick comes as business, like air travel, is ramping back up. Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce President Anna Olson said at the update that hotel occupancy — a bellwether for tourism — is increasing considerably.
Last week, Olson said, hotels were at 65% occupancy heading into the weekend but ended at around 80%. Going into this weekend, occupancy rates were 76%, and Olson expected good weather would push that rate higher.
But businesses are faced with the sometimes at-odds goals of getting people in the door and keeping them free of the virus.
“From a business standpoint, this is a very, very fast, robust return to tourism and the tourism economy that our town does rely on,” Olson said. “We know that the businesses are also incredibly anxious about keeping their staff safe and keeping the visitors safe while they are here.”
Mayor Pete Muldoon said that he hoped the community wouldn’t have to lock down again, but he didn’t know what actions would be needed to be taken in the coming weeks and months as business, tourism and virus cases increase.
Wheeler said the Health Department is almost ready to unveil its latest step in working to contain the virus and keep the economy open.
After months of wondering where funding for contact tracing and other containment measures might come from, the Health Department is expecting money from the CARES Act, the massive federal relief package. It will help cover a surveillance testing program, in which businesses and employees who interact regularly with the public will submit to randomized testing, the results of which will give insight into how widespread the virus is.
Wheeler said businesses could help the Health Department by assembling call lists of their employees and designating someone to be a point of contact. Having those steps in place will help should a particular business’ employee contract the virus, because contact tracing is an arduous process.
“Just know that sometimes with these cases one case could have up to, you know, 30 contacts,” Wheeler said, “so it just takes up a little bit of time to get through all of the interviews.”