It was a couple of weeks ago when Moorcroft resident Peggy Frasier sat in front of her 91-year-old mother, Lila Dudrey, in person at the Legacy and Living Rehabilitation Center for the first time in months.
They sat more than 6 feet apart outdoors and across a table with masks on, but at least they saw each other face-to-face. They could share each other’s warm smiles, obscured by masks but without the hindrance of a computer screen or window.
“It was such a beautiful day,” Frasier said. “It was so exciting to see her. I wanted to run over and hug her, which you couldn’t.”
Through nearly seven months of COVID-19 pandemic precautions, Frasier could only communicate with her mother digitally or through a window.
“At night she was still talking about it,” Frasier said about the visit. “I think it really brightened her spirits to be outside.”
Then last week, Frasier got the news she was dreading. A recent local surge of the coronavirus prompted the Legacy to reinstate its visiting restrictions, including not allowing outdoor visits.
“I’m disappointed, I’ll be honest,” Frasier said, adding that she is aware of the recent surge of local COVID-19 cases. “But I understand it. I do respect it.”
Still many unkowns
Just when Frasier may see her mother in-person again is one of many unknowns that persists as a steady surge in COVID-19 cases takes hold in Campbell County and throughout Wyoming and stands in conflict with a county and state that has long since started the process of reopening.
“We as a society have to find a balance going forward that allows us to live life and go to school, go to work, enjoy the things we want to enjoy and at the same time, protect each other from spreading this virus to people it will hurt,” said Dr. Nicholas Stamato, a cardiologist and the chief of staff for Campbell County Health.
“And I think we’re just entering the phase where we’re learning how to do that,” he said.
But learning to strike that delicate balance may have its share of growing pains involved.
“I was concerned that we would have a tidal wave of cases that would overwhelm us,” Stamato said. “Now I think this is going to be a problem we’re going to be dealing with for months. While there will be many cases, it will not be one large event and then over because that was my concern.”
Even since the end of August, there has been a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases in Campbell County and Wyoming.
Through Oct. 7, there have been 391 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Campbell County alongside another 36 probable cases, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. Of those, 100 cases were active as of Friday morning.
The state as a whole has had 6,031 confirmed cases, 1,061 probable cases and 54 deaths.
Of the 7,092 combined confirmed and probable cases statewide, there were 1,435 active cases. The number of active cases hovered below 700 through mid-September. Since then, a rapid spike has shot that number to more than double, and it’s continuing to trend upward.
A Sept. 27 report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, based on the rise in COVID-19 cases during Sept. 19-25, recommended that certain Wyoming counties, including Campbell County, require face masks to be worn indoors, in public and in commercial spaces.
The most recent task force report to the governor Sunday backed off of the mask “requirement,” recommending mask “enforcement,” instead, according to the Casper Star Tribune.
Gov. Mark Gordon called the surge “extremely concerning” Monday during a COVID-19 briefing.
On the one hand, the economy is continuing to reopen, variances allowing large gatherings indoors and outdoors have been approved and school is back in session. Although masks and social distancing are constantly touted by health officials, many parts of life are beginning to resemble normalcy.
On the other hand, CCH has implemented tighter visiting restrictions, the Campbell County Senior Center has shut down again for at least two weeks out of caution and Gordon recently activated the Wyoming National Guard to assist the Wyoming Department of Health with contact tracing.
There is a growing divide between segments of the community becoming more cautious as the pandemic continues and others less so.
Still, the number of cases in the past month have spiked to peak levels in Campbell County, an increase that has been noted by the hospital.
Less than a week into October, CCH has seen a significant spike in COVID-19 cases from those in September, which also were a leap from the combined number of cases in the four months from April through August, Stamato said.
CCH conducts tests and processes results in its own lab. Its numbers are not comprehensive to all of Campbell County and do not indicate the number of hospitalizations. They are simply indicative of people who were tested.
But they do show a local trend that parallels what’s happening around Wyoming.
From April to August, CCH confirmed 142 positive COVID-19 cases and between its own hospital admissions and transferred patients, hospitalized fewer than 10 people for the coronavius.
That began to change last month.
In September alone, CCH confirmed 96 positive COVID-19 cases with a 6% positivity rate. A total of 18 patients were either admitted to the hospital or treated in the emergency room for COVID-19.
This month through Tuesday, CCH tested 45 positive cases at a 13% positivity rate. Between admissions and ER treatment, the hospital has four new COVID-19 patients this month, Stamato said.
“I think we’re going to be facing a continued number of cases as we go on and we will definitely have large surges and then ebbs, but this is not going to be a one-time event,” he said.
Been there, done that
Robin Tamez has learned more about COVID-19 than most over the last seven months.
A nurse at Campbell County Memorial Hospital, she treated some of the first confirmed cases in the weeks following emergency declarations by both President Donald Trump and Gov. Mark Gordon.
Those patients, known as Campbell County’s third and sixth cases, were her stepson and husband.
Rafael Tamez came home from work March 24, took a nap, and felt ill when he woke up. As his symptoms progressed, his son, Kayman, now 15, started showing symptoms March 30.
The family quarantined while the pair recovered and have since been healthy and happy, Robin said.
The major difference for her and the family now is they’ve had much more time to learn about the virus, even as the medical community has.
Hers also is one of many families that have chosen the Campbell County School District’s Virtual School for the first time — but not for the reasons one might expect after having COVID-19 hit their family.
“It’s not because we’re terrified of COVID,” Robin said. “It’s because mom’s not making them wear masks.”
She said the public health policies that mandate mask wearing when kids can’t be kept at a distance from each other “is not fair to them.”
She also has quickly become a fan of the Virtual School and how her two older children are flourishing with it.
“My kids are getting their homework done and are done by 1 in the afternoon and they’re helping us and learning stuff with us at home,” she said.
And even working full time and going to school, Robin said the online school allows her to spend more time with her kids.
‘Barely the end of the beginning’
It’s been nearly seven months since the pandemic started. Like it or not, people need to hold on for the next 12 to 16 months, said county public health officer Dr. Kirtikumar Patel.
He said he understands many people are tired of the pandemic and want things to go back to normal, but it’s not going to just go away.
“This is not the beginning of the end,” he said. “This is barely the end of the beginning.”
Patel said that to have herd immunity, 75% to 80% of a community’s population needs to have been immunized or infected and recovered from the disease. So far, less than 1% of the county’s population has tested positive. And when a vaccine does become available, Patel said he’s not sure how many people will choose to take it.
Despite the recent surge in cases, “We’ve done reasonably well,” Patel said, adding that a lot of that is because the community has been willing to take precautions.
For the most part, people have understood, he said. There are those who complain, but Patel pointed out that Campbell County has it pretty good right now.
“People don’t see that their life is much better here,” he said. “We just have to appreciate that yes, it’s really low and our life hasn’t been hindered to the extent as in other places.”
Again, he asked those who tested positive to stay home until they recover.
“It’s a service. No one will send you a thank you card or flowers,” he said. “That’s the way society works. We work for the common good and help others out.”
At a commission meeting this month, Patel said there are people who are going out in public even though they’ve tested positive. He compared them to “homegrown terrorists.”
Patel said that Public Health officials know that some people are breaking their quarantines and showing up at functions even when they’re positive. When someone who’s tested positive walks around in a store or other public place, “you’re basically leaving around” IEDs in the air for other people to walk through, he said.
The terrorists comment didn’t sit well with Commissioner Del Shelstad, who said it was a “slap in the face” to those who have dealt with actual terrorists.
There has been a lot of frustration and confusion because it seems like things are constantly changing, Patel said. But that’s the nature of dealing with a new disease.
“People react to what happened yesterday not knowing what will happen tomorrow,” he said.
‘A very concerning uptick’
The number of COVID-19 tests administered and processed in Wyoming has increased significantly since the early days of the pandemic and even since this summer.
But to compare the increase in testing to the increase in statewide cases does not explain the recent boom in cases, said Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Health.
“What I don’t want people to do is somehow dismiss the higher case counts as reflective of higher testing,” she said.
That is because while there are more tests producing more positive cases, the rate at which the positives have come back also has spiked.
“We are seeing more than a bit of an uptick, we’re seeing a very concerning uptick across the state,” Deti said.
The idea that increased testing is to blame for the surge, and somehow not indicative of the spread of the virus, isn’t accurate, Deti said.
The rise in cases also is reflected in the rise in hospitalizations in Campbell County and Wyoming at large, she said.
The number of hospitalizations in Wyoming has reached a peak after steadily rising throughout September. The statewide percentage of positive confirmed cases has also trended upward, reaching higher levels than in April, according to the Wyoming Department of Health hospitalization data.
There is not a clear explanation for the surge, but there are several potential contributing factors.
More, and larger, social gatherings along with kids back in schools provide more opportunities for people in large clusters to spread the virus.
Under the current Wyoming Public Health Orders, outdoor gatherings of up to 1,000 people are permitted with social distancing and increased sanitizing measures in place. Indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people without restrictions and 250 people with social distancing and sanitation precautions.
In the last few months, Campbell County Public Health has approved dozens of variances for events, from high school graduations and community get-togethers to fundraisers. Patel said the variances also have be approved by the state Department of Health.
Public Health has no control over what happens at an event, Patel said. The agency trusts that organizers do everything they can to make sure the proper protocols are in place.
“They understand, they don’t want to get sick, they want to have fundraisers,” he said. “They are really great at following what they need to do.”
None of the events have been the source of an outbreak so far, he said. There may have been a few cases that came out of an event, but the rapid spread of disease has not happened because of those.
Some people may not adhere to the guidelines, Patel said, but “as long as most of us do the right thing, I think we’ll come out OK.”
Finding the balance
In late August and early September, Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell was quarantined because his wife had tested positive. He stayed at home for the recommended amount of time, but admitted there were things about the situation he didn’t understand.
“It’s a confusing time for people,” he said.
When he wasn’t feeling well, he was tested and stayed away from his employees. He hopes they do the same.
“If they’re not feeling well, I don’t want them coming in,” Bell said.
He said he doesn’t agree with everything COVID-related that’s happened around the country, but there are precautions that the community needs to take if it wants to avoid an outbreak.
“It’s easy to be critical of all the decisions. But we are fortunate to be in Wyoming,” he said. “I think we’ve done a good job. I’d hate to see us go backward.”
The pandemic isn’t fun and nobody asked for it, Bell said, but it’s here and people need to make sacrifices.
“I have vulnerable people in my life that I have stayed away from, and it’s not because I don’t love them. It’s because I do love them,” he said.
A lot of businesses are hurting right now, and another economic shutdown “is going to take a bigger toll than the actual virus is,” Bell said, adding that the downturn in the energy industry has hurt Campbell County more.
The pandemic, combined with the upcoming presidential election, has everyone on edge, he said.
“I think we could all use a little more patience and civility right now,” Bell said. “That sure would help.”
Although some are fatigued by the months of COVID-19 precautions, the future likely is more of the same for the foreseeable future, local and state health officials have said.
“We recognize that people are tired of doing things differently, they’re tired of COVID-19, but it’s not over,” Deti said. “It’s not done.”
It is what it is
Although disappointed, Frasier said she’ll just have to deal with limited options for visiting her mother. In the end, it’s a matter of safety.
“I want mom safe and the other residents safe as well,” she said.
Ostensibly, the only certainty is uncertainty going forward.
“I don’t think this is going away and I think we are all searching for the best compromise from closing down like we did in February, which I think no one wants to go back to, to ignoring this and letting it run its course, which would probably be associated with many more deaths and illnesses,” Stamato said. “Somewhere between those two, we have to find a balance. I’m not sure anyone is quite certain of where that balance is right now.”
It’s been almost four years to the day since plans to develop a carbon research facility in Campbell County were announced. Over the past few months, design work has been done on the facility, and the design firm working on the project hopes construction can begin as early as next March.
When it’s built, the Wyoming Innovation Center, formerly known as the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center, will allow researchers to test technology and processes that have been proven in a lab but are not quite yet ready for commercialization.
Arete Design of Sheridan has completed two of three phases of design so far, and Levi Van Buggenum, the project architect, and Ben Reeves, project manager, presented to county commissioners Tuesday afternoon.
The Wyoming Innovation Center will be located on 9.5 acres of land at the former Fort Union mine site 4 miles north of Gillette along North Garner Lake Road.
The project has three components, Reeves said, including two buildings. Outside, there will be seven pilot pads ranging from 24,150 square feet to 42,000 square feet where tenants can test their technology.
There will be an office building with lab space, and there also will be a building dedicated to processing materials, from coal to rare-earth minerals to fly ash. These materials also can be crushed and stored in the building.
Reeves said it will have equipment that can crush materials into very specific sizes to accommodate whatever the tenant wants, whether it’s 200 microns or 0.75 inches.
“That’ll be a huge attraction to the people that would use this space,” Reeves said.
The pads, offices and labs will be available for tenants to lease based on their needs.
The cost of the project is a little more than $3 million, which includes land acquisition, design and construction costs. The project has funding from a $1.46 million grant from the Economic Development Association and a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council.
Van Buggenum said if all things go according to plan, he hopes to break ground on the project “as soon as the frost is out of the ground in 2021.”
The design process should be complete by the end of November, and the hope is to bid the project out in January, with construction to begin as early as March.
Because the project has federal funding from the EDA, it has to work within strict EDA requirements.
For a normal project, there would be a base bid, which just covers the bare necessities, and then there would be bid alternates, or additions to the project that would be made if money is available.
From EDA’s point of view, if one part of the project isn’t 100% necessary, it won’t be funded.
“It has to be 100% functional,” Van Buggenum said. “You only get the base bid.”
EDA also has strict rules on project costs. If the project goes out to bid and all of the bids come back over budget, it has to be rebid, which could push it out of prime construction season.
“If you go under-budget to make sure the project moves forward and you undershoot it too much,” the EDA will take back some of the funding, Van Buggenum said.
It’s a challenge to get an accurate estimate, he said. If they go to a contractor that’s familiar with the market and ask for a rough guess on how much the project will cost, that eliminates the contractor from the bidding process.
“The ultimate goal is that our cost-estimate is dead-on,” Van Buggenum said.
Gillette football fans can cheer one of their own in the spring when professional indoor football makes its debut in the Energy Capital of the Nation.
Former Campbell County High School standout running back back Vijay Pitter will play for the Wyoming Mustangs of the Champions Indoor Football League, which signed a deal Thursday to make the Cam-plex Wyoming Center its home arena.
At the same time, Pitter signed his contract with the team, which is relocating to Gillette from Rapid City, South Dakota, where it was the Mayhem.
Pitter admitted it was “nerve-racking” to sign, but he is ready to get to work for a team that will play just 3 miles from his old stomping grounds at Camels Stadium.
His new squad joins a league entering its seventh season. Other CIF teams are the Amarillo Venom, Omaha Beef, Salina Liberty, Sioux City Bandits, Wichita Force, Oklahoma Flying Aces and West Texas Warbirds.
Putting the pads back on
Prior to the summer, Pitter was preparing to join the Gillette College Pronghorns soccer team. But the squad, like all the school’s sports programs except rodeo, was cut for budget reasons. Pitter said he then decided to look at the Montana State University-Billings soccer program, but things did not work out there.
Instead, he will put the football pads back on for the Mustangs in the upcoming 11-game season that starts March 27 and will end in July. About half of the games will be played in Gillette.
Pitter is fresh out of high school, but he made a strong impression on Mustangs managing partner and head coach Keith Russ during summer tryout.
When Pitter showed up Russ admitted he was a little bit nervous because Pitter was up against “a lot of grown men.” But once Pitter got on the field he was able to elude and out-muscle defenders and show off the talents that earned him Class 4A all-state honors at CCHS last year.
Football has been a dream of Pitter’s since he was in the eighth grade, he said. His favorite football player is New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, whom he tries to emulate.
Russ said he tried to encourage Pitter to go to college before the signing, “but he’s got his mind set on a career path he wants to take I can’t tell him no. If he wants to sign with us, that’s what we’re going to do. He’s a good kid all around.”
Since graduating with the Class of 2020, Pitter has been working with his family’s trucking business. During his off days, he keeps in shape.
He said he’ll continue to balance his time between his job and working out.
Two years in the making
The Champions Indoor Football League and Russ have been working for two years to bring a new franchise into the fold.
“I’ll be quite honest, I don’t know why not,” CIF Commissioner Ricky Bertz said. “There is a strong football passion that takes place and happens here in town.”
The community has embraced the Gillette Wild junior hockey team and the Mustangs have a chance to do something special in the city, Bertz said.
“As impressed as the fans will be by the players and their athletic abilities on the football field, those same fans will be equally impressed with their actions off the field through their involvement in the community,” Russ said in a press release. “The community will be providing these players the ability to pursue their goals and dreams of playing this game, in return those players will continuously work on giving back to (the) community without exception.”
The Mustangs will continue to look for players to add to the squad. It has signed about 15 so far and will bring in about 30 to training camp early next year before the roster is whittled down to 25 when the season starts in March.
The team also will try to secure local partnerships, participate in community events and “get to know the community well,” Russ said, adding that he loves it in Gillette.
“If I could sell my house today, I’d move here tomorrow,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great place for me to eventually move to and raise my family.”