Gloved hands

Help may be on the way for Wyoming’s beleaguered hospitals.

Gov. Mark Gordon announced Wednesday that he is authorizing $10 million in federal CARES Act funds for traveling nurses and other health care workers to bolster ranks at the state’s hospitals.

A surge in COVID-19 patients has taxed hospital systems both in Wyoming and throughout the region. Jackson has requested three nurses.

“As hospitals around the region face the same issues, our hospitals cannot plan on transferring patients out of state,” Gordon said in a statement. “I want to ensure Wyoming maintains its ability to provide our residents access to the treatments and care they need.”

Travel nurses allow hospitals to fill gaps in their ranks. During the beginning of the pandemic, stories abounded of nurses and other workers, both traveling and with permanent jobs, going to hard-hit areas like New York to help.

Now, with a spreading rash of hospitalizations filling up beds around the country, extra staffers are needed basically everywhere.

Wyoming Hospital Association President Eric Boley told the Jackson Hole Daily that his organization’s long-standing relationship with Medical Solutions, a large agency that coordinates traveling staff, should help.

Ditto having $10 million, which will help when bidding for contracts.

“Through our relationships and with the financial backing that we received through the CARES money, we might be able to do something that hospitals can’t do individually,” Boley said.

As of Tuesday, Wyoming had a record 178 people hospitalized with COVID-19, more than triple the 56 patients just a month ago.

Two hospitals in particular have been hit hardest. In Casper, the Wyoming Medical Center’s intensive care unit is nearly full, with just two beds open, according to its self-reported data.

The Cheyenne Regional Medical Center is in slightly better shape, but only because it is larger. It has 20 ICU patients, roughly two-thirds of its capacity.

Boley said hospitals around the state accessed funding earlier in the pandemic to retrofit buildings for more beds or to buy more personal protective equipment. Even so, COVID-19 patients require a lot of staff, so an open bed may not mean that a hospital can provide the necessary care.

That’s where the traveling nurses come in. Coordinating contracts and travel can be difficult, so they aren’t going to show up tomorrow, but Boley hopes the first wave can start in as little as two weeks.

The association and Health Department need to work with individual hospitals to ascertain their needs before requisitioning help. Boley and his staff started making calls about a week ago, before the funding was finalized.

“We’ve already had our boots on the ground, so to speak,” he said. “So we’re hopeful we can expedite it.”

St. John’s Health is looking to take advantage of the opportunity. Other than the flood of hospitalizations following a COVID-19 outbreak at the Living Center, St. John’s has avoided high numbers of coronavirus patients in its wards, but that could change at any time.

Despite those low numbers of hospitalized patients, St. John’s has still had trouble with staffing due to quarantine orders. CEO Dr. Paul Beaupre said earlier this week that 25 staff members were out, making covering shifts tough.

“If we can get them here, the bills go directly to the [Hospital Association],” Human Resources Director Thom Kinney wrote in an email, “at least until the CARES Act expires, at which point we could wind up paying the remaining contract. Still definitely worth it.”

How long the $10 million Gordon approved will last depends on how many traveling staffers are needed and how long they stay. If case counts start to drop, hospitalizations will likely follow and the demand for extra people will diminish.

If caseloads stay high, so will demand, but Boley thinks the state will step in if the initial cash influx dries up.

“If we need more, my understanding is we go back and the governor will help us with additional funding,” he said.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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