Outside of the Lewis residence is a yard sign of the Mona Lisa. Her smile is masked, and the words “wear masks” and “wash hands” lay over the image.
Inside, Jeff and Rita Lewis, 74 and 68, are both immunized and cautiously waiting for the world to catch up with them.
“We’ve got all kinds of plans,” Jeff said. “More plans than time.”
The retired couple had plans about this time last year, too. But that was changed along with the rest of the world by the coronavirus.
They were on their way back from Hawaii last February when the stakes surrounding the virus began escalating. Fortunately for them, there were few states with fewer known virus cases than Hawaii and Wyoming back then.
They remember starting to trip back home, going to the airport in Hawaii and seeing all of the masked faces for the first time. What they read in the news was being confirmed before their eyes.
Not long after that, they had to cancel their summer trip to Northern Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
Now they have a United Airlines voucher burning a hole in their pockets. With American travelers still not viewed too favorably by the European Union, they may be using those miles to travel elsewhere.
“We haven’t gotten to travel, but we don’t think we’re suffering terribly,” Rita said. “We hope it gets settled. We hope we will be able to do it while we’re still young enough to do it. But I guess if we don’t, we’ve got great memories.”
More than two months after the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in Campbell County, more than 2,000 local residents have received both doses. The number of newly vaccinated grows greater each week.
With their newfound immunity, the growing population of the fully vaccinated are still easing their way back towards normalcy, while acknowledging that their worlds may not have changed as much as their immune systems.
A cautious breath of air
In December, Lori Evans, a phlebotomist for Campbell County Health, was undecided about the vaccine.
As a health care worker, she would be one of the first in the county with access to the Pfizer shots. Then her decision became easier. In that same stretch of time leading up to Christmas, her mother got sick with COVID-19 as a resident at the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center.
“That’s what changed my mind,” Evans said.
Her mom was doing OK, at first. After she was taken to the hospital, she was stable. So Evans went home that night. By the time she came back to visit the next morning, her mother had died of complications from the virus.
Only a couple of months later, Evans is immunized and still grieving. Her story has since changed the minds of some of her co-workers, who like her were initially skeptical of the new vaccine.
“It’s hard going through it every day, and you’re trying to grieve in the process,” Evans said. “It’s just a lot.”
The residents and staff at the Legacy first got access to the vaccine in early January. By then, Brittany Lewis, a licensed practical nurse, was ready for her vaccine.
As a nurse at the long-term care facility, she saw first hand the effects of the pandemic on the residents. Because visitation restrictions kept residents away from their loved ones, the residents and staff grew closer, Brittany Lewis said.
“They’re a second family to you,” she said.
But after being immunized, she really wanted to spend time with her own family without the stress of unknowingly bringing the virus to them. It had been a long time since she saw her grandfather. Once vaccinated, she felt much better bringing her 2-year-old son, Hunter, to see him.
“I just don’t want to miss out on anything because life is too short,” she said.
She even took her family bowling recently, something she said she would not have done before getting the vaccine.
“I want this year to be a lot better than last year, and I want to enjoy it and not worry as much,” she said.
Maybe the vaccine did not change her life for the better as drastically as the way the pandemic changed many lives for the worse, but she is able to do the simple things with less worry.
“I think that’s my biggest emphasis, that I can breathe and not have to worry as much,” she said.
Dr. Deanna Lassegard, a hospital emergency room doctor, received the first COVID-19 vaccine in Campbell County when it became available in mid-December.
Since getting her second shot in early January, her work life has not changed much. She still masks up in a N95 every day and runs the risk of being exposed to the virus in the emergency room.
But COVID-19 cases have dropped in the community and so has the number of hospitalized patients. Lassegard even said that the cases that have wound up in her emergency room have been less severe.
In her personal life, some small victories have also emerged. She returned to the gym after avoiding it prior to vaccination and has made a few ski trips with her family.
When she first got vaccinated, Dr. Amanda Opfer was behind her in line for the shot. Now the two of them, and their vaccinated husbands, are planning a trip to Montana to ski and spend time together.
Not exactly international travel but certainly a step further than would have been safe even a few months ago.
“Traveling before just seemed like far too big of a risk,” Lassegard said.
Even though she is vaccinated, much is still unknown about how the vaccine may affect transmission of the virus. So when at the gym, in the store or any situation that calls for it, she still wears her mask.
“For me, as a physician, it’s my job to not spread it to other people,” she said. “Some laypeople, they don’t have that responsibility, but as a doctor in the community, I take that very seriously.”
It’s about layers of protection. That’s a phrase she has voiced often in regard to virus safety and continues to as the vaccine becomes more widely distributed.
“You get the vaccine. You wear your mask when you can’t socially distance, you wash your hands more,” she said. “There’s layers. There’s not just one thing that’s going to fix this and make it perfectly OK and perfectly safe.”
Karen and Don Helms, 70 and 75, were among those who faced the cold winds to wait for a COVID-19 shot at the Senior Center when they were first made available in January to those 70 and up.
Fast forward to March, almost two weeks after getting their second doses, and Don and Karen said their lives aren’t too different from before they were vaccinated.
Karen has a lung illness that forces her to drive to Billings, Montana, to see her doctor occasionally, which has simultaneously been the cause for her leaving the house while also serving as her main impetus for staying indoors in the first place.
Nonetheless, the couple has six kids, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren who they can’t wait to see in-person, many of whom still live in Gillette.
“I remember telling that doctor (in Billings) ‘I don’t know if it’s worth living if this has got to be how it is all the time,’” Karen said. “I’m serious. It is worth living, of course. But we were very close to our kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. To not be able to go pick them up from school, not being able to have them here (has been hard).”
With their maximum immunity kicking in, the couple hopes to be able to reconnect with their family soon.
For now, they are continuing to monitor the cases in the community. Their own immunity is one thing, but how active the virus remains in the community will dictate how safe they feel being out in public.
“I may be getting really old, but I still like to breathe,” Karen said.
While reintegrating into whatever is to become their new vaccinated normalcy — and eyeing their next travel plans — Jeff and Rita have taken a cautious approach as well.
Both have begun going to the Campbell County Recreation Center again, where Rita swims while Jeff uses the Field House.
They are tracking the situation in Europe and hoping that it will open back up next summer, but they aren’t holding out their hopes. The memories from the trips they’ve had will serve them in the meantime.
“Sometimes it seems like we’re kind of spoiled nowadays,” Jeff said. “We didn’t go through World War II like my parents did.”
When they did travel to Europe, they visited World War II sites, like Normandy, and some areas from World War I.
“You learn to appreciate what those people had to go through and just staying home doing puzzles isn’t quite as tough as they’ve had it,” he said.
Even so, if COVID-19 is this era’s biggest struggle, that’s all the more reason to take it seriously. He appreciates the struggle of the past and the present. Without undermining those who have been financially hurt or can’t afford to stay home and not work, Jeff recognized that as strange as this past year has been, many have had it much worse.
“Other people have sacrificed a lot more than just a financial loss, but that’s from somebody who is retired and doesn’t have to worry about that,” he said.
Tentatively, they are planning on visiting their grandchildren in South Dakota before making their way further north to visit Rita’s 90-year-old mother in Wisconsin.
They may even hit a few bike trails along the way. Until then, they are taking each day in stride.
“This is just something we have to get through,” Rita said.
For those in Campbell County who have been vaccinated, their reintroduction to society has been gradual.
They are mostly immune, but the majority isn’t. They are ready to leave the house, but the world of social distancing, mask-wearing and public health orders still awaits them.
As anxious as they were to be some of the first ones vaccinated, now they are equally patient, waiting for the rest of the country to catch up to them.
An updated visitor policy approved by Campbell County Health has been questioned by several hospital trustees.
Multiple changes in visitor protocol have been made throughout the COVID-19 pandemic dependent on virus case rates in the community. The most recent policy was made in order to have a uniform, simplified policy going forward, said Sherry Bailey, CCH director of ICU and Med/Surge, and Natalie Tucker, the hospital’s professional development, infection prevention and case management director.
A color-coded scheme — green, yellow, orange and red — is outlined in the new policy to determine the level of visitor restrictions CCH will apply going forward.
The restrictions would grow incrementally more restrictive, with the green category having no restrictions and red not allowing any visitors, with limited exceptions.
The officials said it sets a consistent baseline for the health care system to use during the COVID-19 pandemic or as any other infectious disease may dictate.
Regarding the new guidelines, which the board first reviewed in January before its presentation last week, trustee Sara Hartsaw, who also is a surgeon, emphasized the added importance of patients, including COVID-19 patients, being allowed visitors.
“Which really we’ve known (that) all along, but we’ve been under the thumb of higher authorities, federal and state, to mess with this that way,” Hartsaw said.
She also questioned the logic of visitation restrictions, calling on someone at the meeting “to explain to me why someone who this morning was at home with COVID, coughing all over everyone in his household, comes to his emergency room, gets admitted and he’s now completely locked out from his family,” she said. “That makes zero sense to me.
“Everybody in his household was exposed. Now we’ve isolated the person who probably could be better cared for by having a family member there, someone to sit by their bedside, keep them calm, help them with their breathing so they don’t end up intubated and end up transferred or succumbing.”
Hartsaw said the benefits of seeing familiar faces and not feeling totally isolated need to be accounted for in visitation policies.
“That makes no sense to me,” she said. “We’re not talking about Ebola or some other highly lethal disease, and I think that one part of this policy hurts the patients who need it the most. So if somebody can explain that I would be anxious to hear it.”
Hartsaw suggested visitors could dress in personal protective gear similar to other staff who are allowed access to COVID-19 patients as a way of connecting families.
“I think we’re depriving these patients of one of the things that they need most that we can’t give them,” she said. “We can’t be their family.”
CCH has incrementally loosened visiting restrictions as the community’s new case counts, positivity rate and number of COVID-19 patients has dropped over the past couple of months.
While the new policy applies to COVID-19 now, it may apply for influenza and other infectious diseases in the future. Visitor restrictions of some kind have commonly been implemented during flu season in years past, said CCH spokesperson Karen Clarke.
Campbell County now falls within the yellow rung, meaning the community infection rate is between 1% and 10%.
For yellow, visitors to the hospital must be 16 and older with a maximum of two visitors at a time. Those visitors must be screened coming back and forth and follow disease prevention guidelines. Patients with “active disease process,” or in isolation, cannot receive visitors in their room, with limited exceptions.
The Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center has been restricted from in-person visitation for the majority of the pandemic and continues to operate with more strict visitation restrictions than the hospital or other CCH facilities.
Tom Murphy, one of the three recently elected hospital board trustees, mentioned questions he has received from the community about the well-being of Legacy residents who are unable to see their families.
“What if we disobey these orders that are coming down from above?” Murphy asked. “Is it a financial situation where they will withhold funding from us, or do we have our own autonomy in this matter?”
CCH CEO Colleen Heeter said the organization could be at risk of losing licenses by not following certain restrictions and that the guidelines and mandates come from higher state and federal agencies.
Hartsaw clarified that her gripes were directed toward visitation at the hospital, but that the Legacy restrictions would eventually need to be addressed as well.
“I think that’s a fight that we need to have, but we’re not there yet,” she said.
This week, Hartsaw said that those views are her personal feelings more than as a board trustee. She complimented the CCH medical staff and nurses for their work throughout the pandemic, but said that after seeing so many “sick, sick people” come through the hospital with COVID-19, having them separated from their families is an added burden on patients.
Trustee Alan Stuber asked if, with restrictions loosening in the state as Wyoming’s vaccination rate increases, CCH would continue to revise its policy going forward to reflect possible improvements in the pandemic.
“If we’re not able to make those changes because of reimbursement or whatever it may be, who is?” Stuber asked. “How can we proceed and what can we do to advocate to make those changes? There’s got to be a way. We can’t continue this forever.”
The Wyoming Supreme Court has reversed a decision against a Gillette man and remanded the case back to District Court because a search of his home violated his constitutional rights.
Dillon Wayne Fuller, 31, had been sentenced to prison after a March 2019 case in which he refused to stop for a sheriff’s deputy who had seen that the SUV he was driving had no visible registration.
He was charged with felony possession of marijuana, felony drunken driving and two misdemeanors.
He made conditional guilty pleas to the two felonies, reserving the right to appeal.
After the deputy turned on his emergency lights to stop the vehicle at about 3:30 a.m., the SUV sped up from 35 mph to 40 mph and went about four blocks before parking at an apartment complex. The driver jumped out of the vehicle, looked at the deputy and ran into an apartment despite the deputy’s admonishments to stop.
The deputy called for backup and talked to the passenger in the vehicle. When other officers arrived a few minutes later, they kicked in the barricaded door to Fuller’s apartment after he refused to open it, according to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Marijuana and drug paraphernalia were in plain view. He also showed signs of intoxication.
Fuller filed a motion to suppress all evidence found in his apartment, claiming that the officers’ warrantless entry violated his Fourth Amendment rights that prohibit unreasonable search and seizure.
District Judge Thomas W. Rumpke denied the motion, saying that the search was reasonable because the officers had probable cause to arrest Fuller for driving without a registration, eluding and interference, and also because the deputy was engaged in a “hot pursuit” of Fuller — a legal description that requires not only some sort of chase but also involved an emergency that required immediate police action, according to the court.
They did not find that emergency existed in Fuller’s case.
In making his decision to deny the motion to suppress evidence, Rumpke pointed out that having no visible registration and eluding police are “jailable offenses,” and that Fuller “repeatedly and quickly escalated his criminal behavior.”
“In a matter of minutes, (Mr. Fuller) went from not having a properly displayed vehicle registration to trying to elude the police in a vehicle to running away from a deputy sheriff as he attempted to make an arrest. Under these facts, the ‘hot pursuit’ doctrine applies and prohibits rewarding (Mr. Fuller) for escalating his criminal behavior and avoids penalizing law enforcement for apprehending a suspect who by his own actions drew law enforcement into his home,” Rumpke wrote.
The court found that the break in time when the deputy spoke with the passenger and waited for backup showed that there was no “hot pursuit.” Fuller also had not put anyone in danger and had threatened no physical harm that would have necessitated a warrantless entry, the Supreme Court justices said.
“Indeed, by retreating into his apartment, any danger he posed to the community by driving without a visible registration and in excess of the speed limit had dissipated,” the court said.
“While Mr. Fuller was eventually arrested and charged with driving under the influence and possession of marijuana, the evidence supporting those charges was not discovered until after the officers unlawfully entered Mr. Fuller’s apartment,” the court said.
Fuller was sentenced in 2020 to two to four years in prison for possession of marijuana and three to five years for driving while under the influence of alcohol, both felonies to be served concurrently. He had three prior convictions for possession and three prior convictions for DUI, making the latest charges felonies.
Rumpke also sentenced him to four to six years in prison for a second felony DUI charge, to be served consecutively to the other two. In that case, a deputy tried to pull over a GMC Yukon on Oct. 19, 2019, because the Mississippi license plate didn’t match the vehicle’s description. But the driver fled the scene, driving about 90 mph on Southern Drive before turning on Enzi Drive and into the Gillette College parking lot before pulling into a home on Dogwood. The driver ran into the home and out the back door before hiding under a camper, according to court documents. He eventually was arrested.