An epidemiological investigation into Teton County’s third confirmed positive case of COVID-19 has found that the patient contracted the coronavirus through community spread, which indicates at least two of the cases are not linked.
The county’s first two cases had known origin points for the virus, whether an infected individual or travel to an affected area. However, the third has no discernible origin point, meaning investigators could not determine where or how the patient caught the virus.
“Like the time we had our first case, this is disappointing but in no way surprising,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said. “We have suspected it for some time. Now we have direct evidence.”
The Wyoming Department of Health reported the third case late Tuesday night, along with several other new ones around the state. A Teton County press release said the patient is recovering at home and self-isolating.
“They don’t do the [epidemiological] follow-up until the morning,” Teton County Health Department Director Jodie Pond said Wednesday. “So the investigation was done this morning.”
The Wyoming Department of Health also reported Wednesday that Teton County now has five confirmed cases, with two positive test results coming from private labs. By the end of the day, the tally was up to six total.
Wyoming Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said investigations would begin now that the cases have been confirmed, but she couldn’t estimate when they would be completed.
As of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Wyoming had 49 positive cases in 10 of its 23 counties, with 998 total tests done statewide. Teton County’s five cases are the third most in the state, following Fremont County’s 14 and Laramie County’s 12.
As of Wednesday morning, St. John’s Health had sent 92 coronavirus tests to public and private labs.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Mark Gordon said he expected that Wyoming “will see more positive cases” as testing capability increases.
Community spread has also been seen in Fremont County, where a cluster of cases in a Lander nursing home has contributed to its leading the state in the number of confirmed cases.
New community recommendations
The evidence of community spread comes on the heels of new recommendations from the Teton District Health Officer and an entreaty from the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board that visitors delay their trips to the Tetons.
Riddell’s spate of recommendations is meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the county.
“It should be noted that these recommendations are not Public Health Orders but are strongly encouraged to further protect our community,” an announcement of the recommendations said.
The first applies to “high-risk” people — those over 65, people in nursing homes or those with immunocompromising medical conditions. Those groups are more likely to develop complications from COVID-19, so Riddell is advising that they stay home and limit social contact to only family members.
Riddell’s recommendation also applies to people who live with those considered to be at high risk. It says people should leave their house only for essential activities, like grocery shopping, medical appointments or picking up prescriptions, or caring for a family member or pet.
Riddell’s second recommendation applies to the same groups, but it also adds those who have recently traveled outside the immediate region, defined as Teton County and its closest adjacent counties. He asks those groups to limit their travel to essential activities.
His third recommendation applies to all residents of Teton County who have traveled outside the immediate area. He asks them to self-isolate for 14 days, except to perform essential tasks, in case they contracted the coronavirus on their travels.
Spread of the virus has reached all 50 states, and case numbers are rising across the country. Just a week ago, people who left the region might not have had to worry about contracting it, depending on where they traveled, especially if they did so domestically.
However, the virus has become so widespread, Dr. Jim Little Jr. said, that health care providers no longer consider travel history when evaluating if someone might have COVID-19 because the virus exists pretty much anywhere someone might travel.
Riddell’s fourth recommendation is for people who live outside Teton County or own second homes here. For those groups, he asks that they return to their primary place of residence to avoid potentially transmitting the virus further in Teton County.
It also asks that people planning visits to Teton County cancel them. To that end, the Travel and Tourism Board is asking people to delay trips to Jackson Hole, a strong statement from an entity whose main purpose is to convince travelers to plan trips to Jackson.
“We encourage visitors to pause or reschedule their travel plans rather than cancel their trips altogether,” a statement from the board says. “Much of the community’s livelihood depends on tourism, and although we are disappointed to temporarily close our doors to would-be travelers, the health and well-being of everyone is our greatest priority.”
The board points out that most amenities visitors would use, such as bars, restaurants and ski resorts, are closed, meaning the community isn’t prepared to offer the same kind of experiences tourists may be used to. However, it does anticipate a time when the outbreak settles down and allows Jackson to resume something that resembles regular life.
“We look forward to welcoming our destination visitors once travel is recommended,” the statement says, “and when we are again able to provide the resources, amenities and services required for everyone to fully enjoy our beautiful region.”
Riddell, other health care providers and Teton County officials hope the social distancing measures and closures that have been enacted will help “flatten the curve,” an epidemiological concept that involves lowering the spike of cases so that health care systems are not overwhelmed. Though people could be comforted by knowing where Teton County is on the curve, the relatively low number of cases makes that difficult to determine.
“Obviously, looking around the rest of the country, we know this can happen very quickly,” Riddell said. “We know we are a bit different than New York City. We hope that’s to our advantage.”
This story has been updated to reflect the most current data available from the Wyoming Department of Health. —Eds.