As COVID-19 spreads to Crook County in Wyoming’s northeastern corner, rural living and proactive behavior could slow the virus, but at a high cost to the local economy, a state senator said.
“We had our first confirmed case pop up on Sunday,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. “But, we think the patient’s whole family is infected. There’s certainly more cases than we know about. We’ll continue see cases go up.”
Driskill’s family owns the KOA campground near Devils Tower and he said he’s issued reservation refunds totaling tens of thousands of dollars so far.
“It’s already hurting our tourism economy and with oil prices the way they are and cattle prices taking a huge hit, we’re looking at hard times ahead,” Driskill explained.
Despite the bad news, he said residents are keeping their chins up and following Gov. Mark Gordon’s stay-at-home advisory.
“I think we were all prepared that it could happen at some point,” he said.
Driskill credited local governments’ and businesses’ quick and proactive response to the virus for the county’s low infection rate. In mid-March, the Crook County Board of County Commissioners closed the county courthouse to the public as a preventive measure.
“Most of the businesses were exceptionally careful before the shutdown,” Driskill said. “I think everybody realized the potential threat of it, and as far as I can see, Crook County has taken this pretty seriously.”
With only one hospital and one respirator in the county, however, he said residents could be in a bind if the virus spreads too fast. Additionally, many people travel to Montana or South Dakota for health care and groceries, which could be problematic as states like Montana close their hospitals to out-of-state traffic, Driskill said.
“South Dakota closed down weeks after we did, and a lot of (Crook County) business happens there, so that’s concerning,” he said, explaining the lack of closures in South Dakota could heighten the risk to Wyoming residents doing essential shopping in nearby Spearfish.
With just more than 7,400 people spread across approximately 2,900 square miles, Crook County residents live in mostly rural settings, which are well-suited for long periods of isolation, Driskill said.
“I think our rural nature really helped slow the spread,” he added. “Most of these people don’t go into town but a couple times a month, anyway.”
However, many residents travel at least 30 miles to visit a hospital, which could reduce the likelihood of an infected person seeking testing or medical treatment in the early stages of the virus.
“I don’t think anyone is going to the hospital for a slight cough,” Driskill said. “Most are waiting until it gets serious.”
As the local economy declines, he said local governments might need to reduce services as relief funding from the state is unlikely.
“This doesn’t bode well for the cities and county in the next year,” Driskill said. “The state is not going to have the funding to help the county. The preliminary figures are saying this could impact state revenue by as much as $800 million.”