Where are you traveling for spring break?
That innocuous question asked during barbecues, sporting events and random meetings at the grocery store carries extra significance this year, as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spreads across the United States. Fewer and fewer locales seem to be free of the virus, leading employers and schools to consider asking people to stay home should spring break travel take them to affected areas.
“We have shared with staff and families to be mindful of their travel plans and reference the CDC guidelines,” school district information officer Charlotte Reynolds said.
Reynolds said Teton County School District No. 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman will speak about COVID-19 to the district board of trustees at its 6 p.m. meeting Wednesday, so no districtwide decision has yet been reached. With the number and distribution of confirmed cases changing daily, the school district could wait until closer to spring break to make a final decision on how to handle employee and student travel.
Uncertainty surrounding the virus hasn’t precluded one of the private schools from making plans. Teton Science Schools is already gathering information on staff and students’ spring break plans, asking for information on travel more than three hours from the region.
Executive Director Chris Agnew said amassing data now on spring break travel plans will help the school make good decisions if the virus spreads. As it stands, employees and students who travel to areas with travel restrictions will be asked to stay home for 14 days upon their return.
“We have some areas that are blackout,” he said, “like China.”
With outbreaks spreading in several countries, the list also includes Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan. Teton Science Schools’ reaction might be one of the more stringent, but officials are preparing for the virus to find its way to Wyoming and, perhaps, Jackson, which could make such polices more widespread.
The Teton County Health Department and other emergency management personnel are not telling county departments or businesses to instate such rules yet. Currently, they are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which for the previously listed countries do provide some sort of self-quarantine, but list no restrictions for domestic travel.
Leaders from town and county departments and elected officials gathered Tuesday afternoon for an emergency preparedness drill to evaluate how well government could function if employees are not able to come into the office. Emergency Management Coordinator Rich Ochs said the enlightening discussion revealed that the impact on departments may not be evenly distributed.
“It stressed the point that we can’t have a boilerplate plan,” Ochs said. “We need one tailored to each department.”
For instance, the assessor’s office may be able to absorb a hit to its staff for a week, unless that week happens to fall when tax forms need to be sent out or processed. Some employees may be able to work from home, which holds true for the community at large.
Some businesses — including the News&Guide — have asked employees to consider working from home following travel to affected areas. In the same vein, the public school district and Teton Science Schools are evaluating how to provide remote education if students need to be quarantined at home.
Because so much of education takes place on a computer, public and private students are already set up to do some work from home. Teachers have access to tools that can help them monitor students’ work remotely if need be as well, but educational needs may go beyond simple instruction.
“We are providing resources and thinking about how do we guide school districts through delivery of online education, or delivery of food if that need arises,” state Superintendent Jillian Balow said. “We have also been in contact with our custodians’ association and our nurses’ association to make sure they have the resources they need.”
Not everyone, however, has that luxury. Restaurant workers and others in the service industry who depend on hourly wages may feel they need to work to afford rent or other bills. Some people work in sectors that put them in contact with the community’s sickest, which heightens their risk for exposure.
“We don’t get to choose to distance ourselves from the sick people,” Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen said. “It is our duty to run to help the sick people, so therefore it was also our duty to prepare in advance.”
The same goes for the Jackson Police Department, which is taking steps to keep officers healthy as they perform their duties.
“We have a lot of interaction with the public,” Police Chief Todd Smith said. “We are pushing out information to our employees as far as hygiene, and we issued hand sanitizer, wet wipes and Lysol to be used in the patrol cars.”
The vast majority of St. John’s Health employees fall into the same category as first responders. Chief Communications Officer Karen Connelly said those who can work at home have that option, but many frontline health care workers can’t work anywhere besides the hospital. That’s why the hospital has taken precautions like asking people to call in if they feel they may have contracted COVID-19.
Starting today St. John’s has set up a line for those who want a telephone evaluation. Anyone with flu-like symptoms, fever or cough is asked to call 739-4898, option 3, before coming to the doctor.
Because elderly people and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk of developing critical conditions like pneumonia from COVID-19, St. John’s has been contacting families to ask them to avoid unnecessary visits to the Living Center until more is known about the outbreak.
Though organizations like government departments or the school district garner attention because of their large impact on the community, COVID-19 is having individual effects as well. Sean Sudekum, who works at the ad agency Purple Orange, cancelled an upcoming trip to the Dolomites with friends from New York City and St. Louis over coronavirus concerns.
“I don’t want to singlehandedly be responsible for bringing the coronavirus back to Jackson,” she said. “I’m definitely bummed out, but it’s all relative.”
And it has even begun to change the way we greet each other (see graphic).
At Sunday’s Rock the Ride fundraiser, St. John’s Health Foundation President John Goettler gave elbow bumps to community members. The hospital’s management team is modeling good behavior, Goettler said, to limit virus transmission.
“Even if there was not a coronavirus, we’ve had a pretty nasty flu outbreak here, and the idea of shaking hands like we do every Tuesday at Rotary is just unnecessary,” Goettler said.
Most people get the hang of it once they realize the move.
“You’ve gotta signal it pretty well,” Goettler said, “gotta get your arm up. But once folks see me coming their way, they smile and I think they do get it.”
It’s the best alternative he’s found to the handshake, Goettler said.
“My conversation with my 18-year-old son, he didn’t think the fist bump was a good look for his 55-year-old dad. I think I could probably still pull it off, but he wasn’t quite sure.”
— Johanna Love, Emily Mieure and Jennifer Dorsey contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to include the correct phone number for the St. John's phone evaluation line. — Ed.