Natrona County Health Officials Plead With Hostile Meeting Attendees As Virus Cases Surge
Natrona County and local health officials convened for a briefing at Casper College on Monday afternoon to discuss the community's response to surging COVID-19 cases.
Instead, they were heckled.
Casper-Natrona County Public Health Department Executive Director Anna Kinder took the stage first and said some of the "most valuable resources" in Casper are suffering the impact of rising cases.
Kinder said more than 175 residents in long-term care or assisted living facilities are infected with the virus. An additional 80 staff are infected.
Over the last 15 days, 10 have died and there will likely be eight more deaths.
Kinder added 250 healthcare workers are on modified quarantine where they're allowed to go to work and go home. That's because there aren't others to take their place.
Additionally, 50 essential service personnel in the community — including police officers, firefighters, and city operations — are under quarantine. That doesn't include hospital, school district and college employees, Kinder said.
"Our physicians are having to make those hard decisions to tell patients and their loved ones that they will die — there's nothing else that we can do," Kinder said. "I as the public health director for Natrona County find that hard to believe in 2020."
In some cases, the patients aren't strong enough to endure a trip to the hospital, Kinder said.
But it's not always the most vulnerable populations that are dying from the virus.
What's enabling the virus to spread so rapidly through the community, Kinder said, is "The continued resistance to do what we can to help our neighbors, those who care for us and our community as a whole."
She added, "We know the vast majority of you all can survive and do quite well with the virus. What I'm asking you to consider is the transmission to the next person you come into contact with and with who they may come into contact. All it will take is personal responsibility not to spread the virus to the next person you interact with.
"We want to ensure we don't have to have immediate burials, cremations without service due to no space in our funeral homes and morgue. We don't want to move to a lockdown because there's no personnel to keep the city operating."
As of Monday afternoon, there are 597 active COVID-19 cases in Natrona County.
Public Health Officers Heckled
While Kinder was able to say her piece, those following her didn't get the same treatment.
Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell took the stage after Kinder and was almost immediately met with a hostile crowd.
"My goal is to explain to you from a physician's side what this is like right now and get you to understand something," Dowell pleaded. "Please, please, please, this is not political. Please don't make it political."
Dowell, an infectious disease expert, was immediately met with laugher.
"Please, please just listen," he began again to more laughter.
Eventually, nearly 30 minutes after the meeting began, Dowell was able to continue.
According to Dowell, more than 30 patients are hospitalized at Wyoming Medical Center with COVID-19. Six are in the ICU. One 54-year-old, who Dowell said otherwise "is perfectly healthy," is expected to die on Monday.
Another, 56, will likely die Tuesday.
One woman cited a widely debunked claim that the Centers for Disease Control doesn't recommend using facemasks.
"You're not right," Dowell said.
"Oh yes I am," the woman replied.
"Well thank you," Dowell said, dismissing the claim. Why would medical personnel wear masks if they didn't work in stopping the virus from spreading, he asked.
He later continued, "Did you ever ask why we wear masks in an operating room?"
(As of November 2, the CDC recommends wearing face coverings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Read more here.)
Dr. Ghazi Ghanem, an infectious disease expert who also serves as a county public health officer, related his experience fighting COVID-19 as a physician.
"Anyone who says COVID is nothing, I invite this person to look at their neighbors, what's going on in our society and what's going on in this town right now," he said.
He added that hospitals in South Dakota are contacting Wyoming Medical Center because they are full.
"We tried to get patients yesterday to Denver for surgery," Ghanem said. "They would not take them because they are full. Billings is full and they're sending their patients back to Sheridan.
"We all are in the same boat."
In one case, a patient told Ghanem that his wife said he had to make peace with "the Lord" because he might die.
"I said 'Sir, we're all going to do the best we can for you,'" Ghanem said. "By the end of the day, I don't care if you like what I say or not.
"All that I'm saying is that this is a life, and for you to say that it's not there, does not make it disappear."
Wyoming Medical Center CEO JJ Bleicher quipped "next fish in the barrel" before he began speaking.
Bleicher said as COVID-19 numbers go up, hospitalizations go up. Then deaths go up.
"You can't argue with that. It's a fact. We have 30 patients in the hospital right now — 30 with COVID, which is well beyond any other diagnosis we have in the hospital," Bleicher said. "Another thing I'd like to address is the cavalier way with which you dismiss people with chronic diseases. Over 40% of the country is obese — that's one of the highest risk factors.
"I don't understand why you argue that somebody with diabetes, hypertension, obesity or heart disease should die. How does that make sense?"
And Bleicher said healthy people with COVID are dying. In one case, a 40-year-old was diagnosed with COVID-19. Wyoming Medical Center didn't take that patient.
They later died.