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Weston County

Weston County Health Officer Denies Variance For Bars, Restaurants

in News/Coronavirus

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By Alexis Barker, Newcastle News Letter Journal

Despite Weston County having just 29 active cases of COVID-19, the county’s public health officer denied a county wide variance allowing bars and restaurants to stay open past 10 p.m., according to Weston County Commissioner Marty Ertman. 

As previously reported, the commissioners requested a variance that would suspend Gov. Mark Gordon’s Dec. 7 orders enacting a curfew for bars and restaurants. On Dec. 15, Ertman expressed concern about potential travel for the New Year’s Eve holiday if local establishments were closed. 

“We need to encourage people to stay in our own tribe,” Ertman told Jording. “If you could grant Weston County a variance allowing bars and restaurants to stay open, it would encourage our tribe to stay here. We would not be encouraging people to go over there (South Dakota). We are just asking people to pool over there, probably from a six-state area.” 

She noted that with Weston County being in the “green,” according to the White House matrix, Jording should be able to grant the variance.

Gordon had stated in a press release announcing the statewide orders that there are guidelines in place to determine if a county is safe enough to suspend the public health orders.

“These next few months are going to be challenging for our businesses, citizens, families, and our healthcare workers,” Gordon stated in the release. “This is a necessary step to ensure a happy and healthy holiday season and a safer and Merry Christmas, and set ourselves in good stead for the new year.”

The county commissioners, however, expressed concern that the orders would only send people outside the area where they might contract COVID-19 then return to Weston County, possibly spreading the virus.

“This request, I don’t think, is unreasonable. There are provisions in the new set of orders,” Jording said at the time, noting that he would have to review the documents before deciding if he could support the requested variances or not. 

Roughly a week after Jording received the variances for review, Ertman reported on Facebook that both Jording and Wyoming Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist had denied the variance. She added that Niobrara County had all of its requested variances approved. 

Attempts to contact Jording for comment on his reason for denying the variances were unsuccessful by press time. 

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Weston County Commissioners Back Away From Public Health Orders

in News/Coronavirus

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By Alexis Barker, Newcastle News Letter Journal

NEWCASTLE — The Weston County commissioners took a stand against COVID-19 health orders by voting 2-1 to rescind the chairman’s signatures from state/county health orders presented by Dr. Mike Jording, the county’s health officer. 

The county has experienced an increasing number of COVID-19 cases over the past month, according to Wyoming Department of Health website. 

At the time of the vote, the commissioners stated that a quorum of the board was considered three commissioners per state statute so decisions could be made by vote, although they maintained throughout the discussion that it would be preferred to have a full board, and in the end made the decision without two commissioners present.

Weston County did not have a positive case until June; to date the county has added 13 to the total number of cases, a majority of those in the last month according to information from the department.

As of Sunday, the department of health had the county listed as four active cases of COVID. Chairman Ed Wagoner and Commissioner Tracy Hunt voted to rescind the signatures, while Commissioner Marty Ertman voted against the motion citing the absence of commissioners Nathan Todd and Tony Barton.

The commissioners seemed to favor drafting a resolution similar to the one in Goshen County that declares all businesses essential and requests a variance to the health orders for the entire county. 

“The resolution asks that the governor respect the individual people’s rights to make their own health care decisions,” Hunt said of the proposed resolution.

He noted that while it does not have any weight legally, the resolution makes a statement about the position of the Weston County commissioners concerning the handling of the pandemic. 

“I think it is important that the governor knows that there are people who may not be very vocal but are unhappy with the direction that the public health officers have taken,” Hunt said. 

Hunt, who voted against signing the health orders originally, explained that he has been a skeptic since the beginning. 

“You can count me as a skeptic since early on, and I have become increasingly opposed. I come just short of calling it a scam or a hoax,” Hunt said. “I do think there is a virus and people are sick. I think there is a demographic that should pay attention.” 

But, the government’s action should be proportional to the threat and that in this situation nothing is measuring up, Hunt said.

He noted that the carnage, including suicide, increased unemployment, mental health issues, economic decline and mass closures, caused by the shutdown is worse than the virus, in his opinion. 

 “I think it is important that the governor know from as many as possible that they are not happy with the direction of his intervention,” Hunt said. 

While expressing support for the overall thought, Ertman insisted that the commission should wait to hear from Todd and Barton. She added that during previous discussions there had been opposition to passing a resolution without all five commissioners present. 

Wagoner said that, in looking back at the signing of the health orders in March, he believes the commissioners were misinformed about the seriousness of the issue. 

“Looking back now, it would have handled it differently,” Wagoner said. “We want to protect our people, but knowing what we do now, it (health orders) would have been wadded up and in the garbage.” 

Despite Ertman’s insistence that the board wait until the other commissioners are present, Wagoner and Hunt both voted in favor of the motion. Two votes of the three were all that were needed for the motion to pass. 

Hunt was adamant that he had no issue passing the motion without the others present and that they both had opportunity to request that the topic be tabled until they were present. 

“There was a reason I had asked for it to be tabled. That is because I don’t know if anyone has the enthusiasm I do for the topic. I wanted to make a fair argument,” Hunt said. “It would be nice if it was unanimous. … We have had things done with just three, though.”

Hunt also said that he would draft a resolution similar to the Goshen County measure. The commissioners also agreed to continue looking at a variance to the public health orders for the entire county.  

Weston County Public Health Nurse Lori Bickford said that she had no comment about the actions taken by the commissioners. 

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What Are Platte and Weston Counties Doing Right?

in News/Coronavirus

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily 

On paper, Weston and Platte counties have escaped the COVID-19 pandemic thus far, but local health officials said they think confirmation of coronavirus cases is only a matter of time. 

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming are up past 300 with reports of the virus in 21 of the state’s 23 counties, but neither Platte nor Weston counties have reported a case as of press time Tuesday.

Platte County

Two popular state parks and the prominence of Interstate 25 commerce in Platte County made the area a likely hotspot for infections, but Nicole Sticka, the county’s public health nurse manager, said so far, the county has dodged the bullet.

“I don’t have any idea why we haven’t picked up any cases from I-25,” Sticka said, explaining county officials expected the interstate to be the virus’ main vector into Platte communities. “For a little bit near the beginning, our state parks in Glendo and Guernsey were full of people from out of state possibly trying to escape the pandemic or just make the most of social distancing.” 

Despite the influx of visitors, however, the county’s COVID-19 numbers remained flat. Sticka said she was not involved with efforts to remove the visitors, but to her knowledge, they were expelled after Gov. Mark Gordon closed campgrounds in state parks March 30.  

Attributing the county’s lack of cases to the public’s adherence to Gordon’s stay-at-home advisory, Sticka said she has not seen much pushback from the community.

“Everybody did what they were supposed to do right away,” she explained. “I really feel like we’ve escaped this.” 

Even though no cases have been confirmed, Sticka said COVID-19 could be present in the community and will likely flare up in the coming weeks.

“Currently in our county, we’re not seeing a huge influx of people of being sick and wanting to be hospitalized, which I would expect to see if we had a significant COVD-19 presence,” she said. “I would like to be able to say it would miss us. But in reality, I do believe it will come through Platte County if it’s not here already.”

Platte County is home to more than 8,500 people and about 30 percent of them are older than 65 — nearly double the rate of surrounding counties, Sticka said. While no official ventilator count was available for the county, she said the area’s only hospital and two health clinics do have access to state inventories if the need arises.

“We’ve learned some lessons from other counties that have already gone through this,” Sticka said. “I feel like we are prepared as much as we can be for if or when this does hit us.”

Weston County

Hugging Wyoming’s eastern border, Weston County is relatively off-the-grid compared to Platte County.

“I think our rural nature is helping us,” said Dr. Mike Jording, the Weston County public health officer. “The people that live here tend to stay to themselves a bit more than you might see in other counties.”

About 7,000 people live in the county, which is dominated by the Thunder Basin National Grassland. 

Weston County residents were also quick to adhere to Gordon’s advisories and proactively restricted visitation to nursing homes and elder care facilities, Jording said. 

Although the state has struggled with obtaining testing supplies, he said he believed the county’s lack of cases was not a result of the test shortage.

“I think we’ve had adequate testing of individuals who are sick,” Jording said. “We’ve had three entities in (Newcastle) that are seeing people that are ill and testing those who need it.”

Only two ventilators are available in the county, however, and both are designed for transporting patients to larger hospitals outside of the county, he said.

Despite the county’s good fortune, Jording said he believed COVID-19 cases would start appearing soon.

“If we’re really lucky, maybe the rest of these nearby sites are going to have decreases in their number, which could decrease the volume we see in our own community,” he explained. “I think everything that we’ve done — from closing down visitation to reminding our residents to wear masks — has been instrumental in keeping the virus out up until now.”

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