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Flu Cases Remain Low Compared to Prior Seasons in Wyoming

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s influenza season appears to be off to a mild start, with cases up just slightly this year over last year but markedly lower than prior flu seasons.

According to the weekly influenza report from Wyoming Department of Health, the number of flu cases reported in the state fell from 200 during the first week in January to just over 100 at the last reporting on Jan. 14.

By comparision, during the same period in 2019, a little less than 600 influenza cases were reported. That year, case numbers spiked at more than 1,400 cases by the end of February. 

Flu season runs from October through May.

Influenza case numbers were not posted for the 2020-21 season, according to Kim Deti, public information officer for WDH, because the state did not experience significant flu activity last season. 

This year, WDH has reported seeing cases of both Influenza A and B virus circulating, with the dominant strand being Flu A (H3N2). Cases have been reported in 21 of Wyoming’s 23 counties.

Deti cautioned against putting too much stock in these numbers, however, given the fact that some medical providers do not consistently report influenza cases to WDH and few patients get tested for the illness.

“The numbers do not show a total picture. With flu, they never have,” she said, noting that comparing reported cases of influenza from season to season or week to week may not be valid given the many factors influencing both testing and reporting.

 However, it is certain that Wyoming is currently experiencing low levels of influenza activity this season compared to previous years, Deti said. 

Deti said that the decrease in flu activity last season in Wyoming mirrored a decline in flu cases seen nationally. Many experts attributed the decline in 2020-21 to COVID-19 related precautions such as traveling less, attending fewer public events and other public health precautions.  

 “For the 2019-20 flu season, activity was running at high levels until the pandemic began and people started taking the precautions we all remember,” she said in an email to Cowboy State Daily. “Then it dropped.”

WDH can’t predict what the rest of the flu season will look like, Deti added, because it’s relatively early in the season.  

Since the beginning of this year’s flu season, 22 Wyoming residents have died of pneumonia and influenza-related illnesses. 

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Wyoming Mental Health Official Expresses Concern About Health Care ‘Crisis’

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File photo

Published on December 9, 2021December 9, 2021  in News/Crime

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming mental health care officials are asking residents to contact their legislators to urge them to action in addressing the state’s mental health care system, which they said is currently in “crisis.”

Heath Steele, president of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, said his group is very concerned about the status of mental health care and services in the state.

“Mental healthcare in our state is in crisis. Wyoming is the worst ranked state, at 29.8 deaths due to intentional self-harm per 100,000 population, twice the national average,” said Steele, who is also executive vice president of operations for Volunteers of America of the Northern Rockies. “The system is stressed with more than 28,000 Wyoming citizens accessing state funded mental healthcare last year. That is in addition to those Wyoming citizens who used insurance or were able to private pay for services.”

Steele said the problems in mental health care in Wyoming can be tracked to a lack of funding and staff to provide services.

“This crisis was not caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, but it has certainly been exacerbated by COVID-19,” Steele said. “Perpetually underfunded and understaffed, mental healthcare providers in all 23 counties of Wyoming are finding it harder than ever to provide adequate care for the increased rates of substance abuse, mental health disorders, and other behavioral health issues.”

Steele noted that while Volunteers of America was “blessed” to have staff members who are passionate, motivated and dedicated to serving those in need, they were also exhausted due to working long hours for little pay.

“Federal funding has been provided through the CARES Act, but it was restricted in a way that created more work for programs and staff,” Steele said. “By adding beds with leased quarantine units, programs were able to respond to the crisis created by the pandemic. But this type of response, one that creates more work for front-line staff, results in COVID fatigue and is unsustainable in the long term, doing nothing to reform a broken system.”

He added a state investment into system-wide reform, rather than further cuts in mental health care spending, are needed on the part of legislators.

He said the state cannot afford to put its mental health care systems on the “back burner” any longer.

“We need to invest in system-wide reform, instead of further cutting the budget,” he said. “We need to educate and retain Wyoming youth who are interested in becoming mental health experts. We need to understand that providing Wyoming citizens with much-needed mental health services will decrease Title 25 holds, incarceration and even the state’s suicide rates.”

He encouraged Wyoming residents to reach out to their legislators and let them know mental health care needed to be one of their top priorities in the next legislative session.

WAMHSAC will be advocating for several issues during the next session, including supporting using funds from the general fund budget to support people in various degrees of crisis and to have a suicide hotline that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Former Campbell County CEO Receives $675,000 Severance Pay

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By Ryan Lewallen, County 17

Campbell County Health has agreed to pay Colleen Heeter, it’s former chief executive officer, $675,000 as part of her contract-obligated severance package, the organization announced Friday.

The Nov. 5 announcement comes just over three weeks after the sudden termination of Heeter’s employment at the direction of the CCH Board of Trustees during a special meeting on Oct. 14, according to the Gillette News-Record.

Heeter had been employed by CCH for three years, beginning her role with the organization in 2018 as interim director of the powder river surgery center before accepting a position as CCH’s chief operating officer in January 2019.

In 2020, she accepted a position as CCH’s top executive officer at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and oversaw the organization’s affiliation with UCHealth, with whom she was employed until her termination as part of a management services agreement, per CCH.

In a Nov. 5 release, CCH thanked Heeter for her time and commitment.

The process for finding a suitable replacement for Heeter has begun, CCH said in the release, adding that the organization feels it is essential to attract and retain the very best leaders.

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Poll: Majority Of Wyoming Voters Support Medicaid Expansion

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A majority of Wyoming voters questioned in a recent survey support the expansion of Medicaid to provide health insurance coverage for more people, a new poll released by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network showed.

The poll also found many Wyoming residents are concerned about their health care situation. More than one in four said they are worried that they will lose health insurance, and many have lacked health insurance in the past three years.

Wyoming is one of 12 states that has not expanded Medicaid. If it did, around 24,000 additional state residents could have access to health insurance through the federal program.

The poll of 500 registered voters, which was conducted by New Bridge Strategy, showed that 66% of Wyoming residents polled supported expanding Medicaid.

Support for expansion spanned political party lines, although it was not uniform. According to the survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38%, 58% of Wyoming Republicans and 64% of Wyoming Independents questioned supported expansion, while 98% of Wyoming Democrats supported it.

“The latest Wyoming Department of Health numbers suggest an estimated 29% of new enrollees in Wyoming would be between the ages of 50 and 64. These are our neighbors and co-workers and when they thrive, so do we. We know that access to care makes it easier to work, find a new job, pay for basic needs and succeed in today’s economy,” said Sam Shumway, AARP Wyoming state director.

Additionally, nearly two-thirds of Wyoming voters polled said they know someone who would benefit from Medicaid expansion and more than one in four (27%) said they are worried that they or someone in their household will be without health insurance in the next year.

“Our neighbors in Montana, Nebraska, Utah and Idaho are all benefiting from extending health coverage to low-income residents – it’s time for Wyoming to join them,” said R.J. Ours, ACS CAN Wyoming government relations director. “These results show people’s very real concerns about cost of care and access to it for themselves and their families. They’re picturing loved ones who may be struggling to see doctors, pay for medications and get the care they need.”

Additional findings from the poll included:

  • 65% of residents said they want their state legislator to support Medicaid expansion;
  • More than half of voters say the health care system is not meeting the needs of working, lower-income residents, and
  • Nearly one in three of those surveyed say health care costs and access to care are the most important issues in Wyoming.

“Regardless of political party or region of the state, Wyoming residents want our family, friends and neighbors to have health care,” said Richard Garrett, American Heart Association of Wyoming government relations director. “It’s great to see this level of support across the state, and we will be working hard with lawmakers to make sure that we increase access to health care for those who need it most.”

During their 2021 general session, Wyoming legislators considered a proposal to increase access to care by expanding Medicaid to roughly 24,000 residents. The bill passed the House, but fell short by one vote of winning needed approval from a Senate committee.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, recently penned an opinion piece that took a stance against Medicaid expansion in Wyoming.

“If Wyoming expands Medicaid, our hospitals will lose over $16 million in annual revenues, meaning fewer hospital jobs and fewer beds available,” Driskill wrote. “And if we ever do expand, I believe a new hospital tax will be needed to cover Wyoming’s share of extra costs.”

Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, a supporter of the Legislature’s most recent Medicaid expansion bill, did not immediately respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment.

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Wyoming Dept Of Health Reports Rare Human Case of Pneumonic Plague

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Department of Health on Wednesday announced the detection of a rare but serious case of pneumonic plague in a northern Fremont County resident.

The department was tight-lipped about other details except that the individual who contracted the ailment had contact with sick cats.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, state health officer, said while the risk for humans to contract plague is very low in Wyoming, the disease has been documented throughout the state in domestic and wild animals.

“It’s safe to assume that the risk for plague exists all around our state,” Harrist said. “While the disease is rare in humans, it is important for people to take precautions to reduce exposure and to seek prompt medical care if symptoms consistent with plague develop.”

An outbreak of pneumonic plague was reported earlier this month in Madagascar. Seven individuals are reported dead and another 22 are hospitalized.

The last large outbreak of pneumonic plague in the country occurred in 2017 and infected more than 2,400 people and killed more than 200.

Plague is a bacterial infection that can be deadly to humans and other mammals, including pets, if not treated promptly with antibiotics. This disease can be transmitted to humans from sick animals or by fleas coming from infected animals.

Pneumonic plague is the most serious form and is the only form that can be spread from person to person. Pneumonic plague can develop from inhaling infectious droplets or may develop from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague.

Plague can also be transmitted from person to person through close contact with someone who has pneumonic plague. Individuals with a known exposure to plague require post-exposure treatment with antibiotics to help prevent illness. 

This human plague case is the seventh thought to be acquired in Wyoming since 1978. Other recorded Wyoming cases include a 1978 out-of-state case acquired in Washakie County, a 1982 Laramie County case, a 1992 Sheridan County case that resulted in death, a 2000 Washakie County case, a 2004 out-of-state case acquired in Goshen County, and a 2008 out-of-state case acquired in Teton County.

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Dept of Health Warns Public About Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever & Colorado Tick Fever

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

After a more than a year of doing everything we could to protect ourselves against microscopic bugs, as summer rolls around, we need to start watching out for actual insects.

It is well known that ticks, mosquitoes and other insects common to Wyoming often carry diseases that are a threat to both people and animals in the summer.

But according to Kim Deti with the Wyoming State Health Department, one of the most common diseases associated with ticks, Lyme disease, isn’t too much of a threat here.

“You’ll hear a lot nationally about Lyme disease,” she says, “but we do not have the kind of ticks in Wyoming that carry Lyme disease.”

But Deti noted that other tick-borne illnesses are definitely something to watch for, such as tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and Colorado tick fever (CTF). 

Tularemia symptoms include fever, swollen and painful lymph glands, inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth sores, skin ulcers and diarrhea. 

If the bacteria are inhaled, symptoms can include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough and progressive weakness and pneumonia. 

Initial RMSF symptoms may include fever, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, lack of appetite and severe headache. Later signs and symptoms may include rash, abdominal pain, joint pain and diarrhea. 

And CTF usually causes fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, and, occasionally, a rash.

But it’s not just tick bites that can spread those dangerous diseases.

“If a person handles an animal that’s infected with tularemia, like a rabbit or rodents, that can be a risk for the person for those tick-borne diseases,” Deti said.

One illness that made headlines for years has been on the decline in Wyoming recently, according to Deti.

“West Nile Virus has certainly been at a much lower level in Wyoming for the last several years,” she said, “but we do want people to prevent those mosquito bites.”

West Nile virus (WNV) is spread by mosquitoes when they feed on infected birds and then bite people, animals or other birds.

While most people infected with WNV don’t have symptoms, others can experience fever, headache, body aches, skin rash and swollen lymph nodes. 

A very small number develop West Nile neuroinvasive disease, with symptoms such as severe headache, fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions and paralysis.

But humans aren’t the only creatures who face danger from tiny threats. 

Jim Logan, the Wyoming State Veterinarian, said there are a number of insects that can transmit diseases to livestock and pets.

“In addition to mosquitoes and ticks, and certainly those are a big factor in disease transmission, there are also the deer flies and horse flies,” he said. “Those types of things can carry such diseases as vesicular stomatitis, which I hope we don’t see this year — but we’re entering the season when typically that is going to be a possibility.”

Logan says that particular disease is very similar to foot and mouth disease, which impacts the ability for animals to eat, walk or reproduce. 

“It’s indistinguishable from Foot and Mouth Disease, which always scares the state veterinarian because of the risks of the disease getting into this country and the effect that would have on the economy,” he points out. “And there is no vaccine for vesicular stomatitis.”

Logan added that Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, blue tongue and other diseases carried by tiny midges and other insects are a real danger to Wyoming livestock. 

“Insect control is really the major prevention,” he explained. “There are sprays, insecticides and repellants, but repellants need to be applied once or twice a day in order to be effective.”

Logan noted that while vaccines exist for mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile and Western Equine Encephalitis, the best defense is to reduce the risk of infection through prevention.

The same advice given by the Health Department to help humans keep safe from insect-borne illnesses can be followed to protect animals as well, Logan said.

The five “D’s” of insect prevention, for both people and animals, are:

1) DAWN and 2) DUSK – Mosquitos prefer to feed at dawn or dusk, so avoid spending time outside during these times.

3) DRESS – Wear shoes, socks, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt outdoors. Clothing should be light-colored and made of tightly woven materials.

4) DRAIN – Mosquitos breed in shallow, stagnant water. Reduce the amount of standing water by draining and/or removing.

5) DEET – Use an insect repellent containing DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide). When using DEET, be sure to read and follow label instructions. Picaridin (KBR 3023) or oil of lemon eucalyptus can also be effective.

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Niobrara County Tops in Wyoming For Smokers; Double National Average

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The percentage of smokers in Wyoming’s smallest county is almost twice the state average and is more than double the national average, according to a state report.

The report “Wyoming and County Profiles,” prepared by the state’s Economic Analysis Division by compiling results of various state studies, found that 34.1% of Niobrara’s 2,422 residents reported that they had smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetimes and were currently smoking.

The percentage is the highest in the state and is far above Wyoming’s average of 18.4% residents who identify themselves as smokers.

However, Kim Deti, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said the figure may be skewed by Niobrara County’s low population.

“I wouldn’t be surprised that Niobrara County numbers are affected by their low population and likely low number of participants in the survey that was the source of that information,” she told Cowboy State Daily.

Wyoming itself ranks 14th in the nation for the percentage of its population that smokes, according to the United Health Foundation.

The percentage of people nationally who identify themselves as smokers is 14%.

Deti said while it may be difficult to say with certainty why Wyoming has a percentage of smokers, several factors may be playing into the number.

“Potential factors include social and cultural attitudes and low perception of harm, low tobacco taxes and no statewide smoke-free policies,” she said. “Some of these factors have been linked to lower smoking rates in other states.”

Following Niobrara County for the highest percentage of smokers, according to the report, is Hot Springs County at 24.5% and Weston County at 24.3%.

At the other end of the spectrum is Teton County at 10.1%.

However, Jodie Pond, Teton County’s health director, said the county has a high percentage of people who use “vapes” rather than cigarettes.

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Teton County Has Lowest Percentage Of Obese People

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

It could be the snow and all the fresh air.
It could be the outdoor fun that is there.
Or maybe the fact that they’re all fitness nuts
Or maybe nobody there likes doughnuts
But in the land where mountains rise like a steeple
Are the fewest of the few of Wyoming’s fat people.
(With apologies to Dr. Seuss)

Whatever the reason, Teton County is the slimmest county in the state, according to recently released state figures.

Figures released last week by the state Department of Administration and Information’s Economic Analysis Division showed only 12.2% of Teton County’s residents have a body mass index higher than 30, the lowest percentage in the state.

The figures were included in the Economic Analysis Division’s annual “Wyoming and County Profiles” publication, which provides information about demographics, health information, vehicle ownership and more on a county-by-county basis.

A body mass index or BMI is derived through a formula involving a person’s height and weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person with a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. 

Statewide, about 29.7% of Wyoming residents have a BMI of 30 or higher.

The highest percentage of obese people in the state, according to the report, was found in Goshen County, where 38.3% of the residents have a BMI of 30 or higher.

Health officials in Teton and Goshen counties were not immediately available to comment on the report.

Teton County residents appear to just be healthy overall, also boasting the smallest percentage of cigarette smokers in the state.

The report said only 10.1% of the county’s residents reported they had smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetimes and were still smoking.

By contrast, in Niobrara County, 34.1% of the residents identified themselves as smokers.

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Riverton Medical District Signs Letter of Intent to Affiliate with Billings Clinic

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Staff reports

A group of Riverton business and community leaders on Wednesday announced plans to build a new hospital in Riverton. 

The Riverton Medical District announced that it signed a Letter of Intent to pursue affiliation and clinical partnership with Billings Clinic, cementing the group’s strong focus on local health care with a trusted partner. 

The partnership with Riverton adds to Billings Clinic’s relationships in numerous Wyoming communities including Basin, Lovell, Powell, and two clinics in Cody. 

Billings Clinic is an independent not for profit, physician-led and community governed organization that is affiliated with (not owned by) the Mayo Clinic as a member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network. 

Billings Clinic brings experience in rural health care, and the Riverton facility would join 16 other health care facilities across Montana and Wyoming in addition to the tertiary care center in Billings, as part of Billings Clinic’s growing health system. 

“This is not just a win, it is a mammoth victory to have signed a Letter of Intent with Billings Clinic to be our clinical and management partner. They are a nationally recognized health system with a laser focus on advancing care in local communities in Montana and Wyoming. They were our first choice as a partner, offering unique experience that will keep our hospital locally owned and governed,” said Corte McGuffey, Riverton Medical District. 

“We reached out to other communities that work with Billings Clinic and received excellent feedback, including Beartooth Billings Clinic in Red Lodge, Montana.”

“In 2002, Beartooth Billings Clinic was looking for a partner who shared the same values as our Board and community. Lutheran Health Systems (now Banner Health) had exited our community in 1991 and we were leery of establishing another relationship. Billings Clinic not only shared our values, they guided our effort to achieve our ultimate goal – a new hospital. 

Today, ten years later, our organization is growing and thriving,” said Kelley Evans, CEO, Beartooth Billings Clinic.  

“We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to partner with the Riverton Medical District because their core values align with ours. The ability to connect Riverton with the other communities we serve will help increase clinical services and advance patient care in the community,” said Dr. Clint Seger, Regional Chief Medical Officer, Billings Clinic. “Sustaining and growing health care services locally is a top priority for Billings Clinic.”

The next step for moving this project forward is approval of a low-interest loan of more than $40 million from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Riverton Medical District has met with the USDA on several occasions and the application process is now fully underway. “Our community has been so supportive of our efforts, including our collaboration with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe to secure land,” said McGuffey. “We are grateful for this support and are excited to bring these plans to fruition.”

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Wyoming Ambulance Services Facing Funding Emergency

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By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square

Wyoming’s ambulance services have reached a state of emergency as funding in many counties dries up.

Fremont, Sweetwater, Weston counties will all lose Emergency Medical Services (EMS) on July 1 if funding cannot be found for the program. Sweetwater and Weston both have potential solutions, but in Fremont, Wyoming’s second-largest county by landmass, no one has stepped forward to fill the gap, according to Luke Sypherd, president of the Wyoming Emergency Medical Services Association.

Wyoming’s funding structure for EMS is unsustainable, Sypherd said, and the overhead for running an ambulance service is costly.

“There are only 11 states in the United States that require EMS to be provided by law,” Sypherd told The Center Square.

Wyoming isn’t one of them, which is resulting in funding for EMS hitting the chopping block before other required services.

Subsidized labor through volunteers has kept Wyoming’s EMS afloat in the past, but that base is shrinking because of an increase in calls and the technicality and costs of maintaining EMS training.

Unlike fire and police, ambulances aren’t reimbursed for calls unless they transport a patient to a hospital. In addition, Medicaid and Medicare only cover somewhere between one-third and one-sixth of the cost of an ambulance trip, leaving a huge funding gap. 

The COVID-19 crisis sped these issues to a breaking point, Sypherd said. Funding dropped out as lower tax revenues combined with fewer reimbursable ambulance trips as EMT’s were encouraged to treat patients at home rather than taking them to hospitals.

Sypherd said one way to reduce costs is by restructuring to make services regional rather than every town having an EMS. This would result in cost savings because many positions could be consolidated into one and infrastructure could be used to cover a wider range.

“You have economy of scale for purchasing power within hospitals, you having a deeper staffing pool,” Sypherd said.

Cody Regional Health hospital runs a regionalized EMS that serves all of western Park County.

Even restructured, EMS still needs funding. Sypherd said there has to be some local or state tax-based revenue to help cover the costs of EMS. He suggests a list of possibilities already in use in some places, like a license plate tax, special health districts within a county, or sales tax.

“Very unpopular—people don’t like to pay taxes, but again when a government health insurance plan isn’t covering the cost of health care then the money has to come from somewhere else,” Sypherd said.

Sypherd also insisted EMS must be made a mandated essential service.

“Law enforcement and fire certainly are essential services, but then some of the other things that counties and cities are required to provide by law, you can’t tell me those are as essential as emergency medical services like 911,” Sypherd said.

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