Facing a dire situation at St. John’s Health and spiking COVID-19 cases, town and county officials didn’t have an immediate response Tuesday and instead tasked local health officials with devising a strategy to curb the virus’ spread.
Both the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners called special meetings Tuesday to discuss hospital CEO Paul Beaupre’s warning that the hospital is at capacity and facing staffing shortages due to the pandemic. Beaupre sent a memo Monday to the business community, councilors and commissioners that he described as “pleading for a 14 day slowdown.”
Though the Town Council took no formal action Tuesday, other than to ask the town attorney to work with Beaupre, Teton County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell and County Director of Health Jodie Pond to craft potential emergency ordinances, one message from councilors and commissioners was clear: There needs to be a unified voice preaching messages of mask-wearing and public safety.
“People have pretty much ignored everything we’ve said for the last two months,” Pond said during the County Commission meeting. “That is why we are in the situation we’re in.”
Town councilors peppered Beaupre, Pond and Riddell with questions throughout their meeting, repeatedly asking what actions the three would suggest the council take immediately.
The County Commission, which does not have the same authority as the town to issue binding ordinances, likewise took no action, waiting to see what, exactly, health officials recommend.
Beaupre’s memo said the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit is full, including three COVID-19 patients — though he said Tuesday that the ICU capacity could be doubled by placing two people in each room — and that more than 30 employees are out for quarantine.
Additionally, Beaupre warned: “Sublette County has an outbreak in their elderly care center and have 12 residents and 12 staff that are COVID positive and may need hospitalization. With this information in hand, we have instituted full surge capacity protocols. Even with these in place, if we do not see a significant decrease in the number of people testing positive in Teton County, St John’s Health will quickly become overrun.”
Beaupre told town councilors Tuesday that he didn’t want to sound an alarm that wasn’t necessary but did want to stay ahead of a potential crisis.
“Let’s just all be really cautious, really aware, see if we can nip this thing in the bud,” he said, “so by the time we’re a week out from Christmas, the hospital’s in better shape, the workforces in all areas are in better shape.”
Dr. Riddell concurred, noting that “time is of the essence here. I agree with Dr. Beaupre that if we don’t act in a reasonably expedient manner here, we could potentially see trouble in the relatively near future.”
Beaupre said during the earlier County Commission meeting that staffing the hospital could jeopardize staffing the clinic at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. He suggested that could jeopardize the winter economy.
Teton Village could find itself with great snow during the holidays but nobody to staff the clinic at the ski area as employees get pulled to cover hospital shifts for sick or quarantined coworkers. Also, the hospital might have no bed capacity left.
“People aren’t going to come here, frankly,” Beaupre said.
Mayor Pete Muldoon and Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson, as they have in the past, repeated that they and the council intend to follow the recommendations of local health officials, though they were leery of returning to the restrictions imposed in the spring. Those included closing bars, and forcing restaurants to be take-out only, among others.
Councilor Jonathan Schechter worried that in the absence of continued aid from the federal government, which was available in the spring and summer, such measures could be devastating for businesses and laid-off employees.
Likewise, county commissioners lamented a lack of contact tracing data that could show where, exactly spread was occurring. Pond said her department has been overwhelmed and its contact tracers have been unable to do full investigations for the past six weeks, limiting that information.
Without that contact tracing data, Commissioner Greg Epstein asked whether private gatherings were more responsible for spreading the virus than restaurants.
“Is asking restaurants to shutdown ... is it going to make the difference that we need?” Epstein asked.
“You’re right, we don’t have the data,” Beaupre responded. Instead, he preached a message of “personal responsibility” rather than a forced economic shutdown. He said at the Town Council meeting that over the last several months people “have all lost the sense of fear” regarding the coronavirus.
“I’m asking people to please, maybe not get a sense of fear, but rather awe” when considering how they act amid the ongoing pandemic, Beaupre said.
Councilor Jim Stanford was unconvinced that asking people to act responsibly without any additional ordinances in place would be effective.
“I’m prepared to act, and to act swiftly,” Stanford said, a notion also alluded to by Councilor Arne Jorgensen. “Any steps we can take, regulatory steps, I’m willing to take ... Asking for personal responsibility is failing.”
Pond said the health department has solutions “other than shutdown” available, mentioning the possibility of an order that restricted gatherings to family groups or with others in an individual’s immediate household.
“I think in the spring when we had, unemployment, enhanced unemployment and [the Payroll Protection Program] for restaurants and businesses, it was a little bit easier pill to swallow,” Pond said of a shutdown. “However, we don’t have those tools. And I do think we have some other tools that Travis and I are ready to bring back.”
The discussion at the Town Council meeting turned to enforcement, with the council hearing from Acting Jackson Police Chief Michelle Weber, who said the current mask ordinance is difficult to enforce due to probable cause issues and the fact that people simply have to say they have a qualifying medical condition to not wear one. She said a few trespass citations had been doled out by Jackson police, but no citations specifically for people not wearing masks.
Ultimately, the council and health officials agreed that public messaging and informing people is the best course for the immediate future. Councilor Schechter inquired of Beaupre, Pond and Riddell who would be best to take the lead on public messaging about wearing masks, only interacting with people in your household, and overall public health measures during the pandemic.
“I really think that people are tired of hearing it from Travis, Jodie and myself,” Beaupre said. “Honestly, I think people have heard us say over and over again what they should be doing and ... I think having it come from the business community, having it come from elected officials, having it come from a number of different sources, other than just the people providing health care and health services in the community would be very helpful.”
The council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Monday. Meetings can be viewed live online on the town’s website. Mayor Muldoon said Tuesday that it’s possible the council rally sooner if needed.