By Tom Coulter
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE – In an effort to monitor potential outbreaks of the coronavirus, Wyoming health officials have announced a plan to test a portion of staff members and residents in every nursing home and assisted-living facility across the state.
The plan, which Gov. Mark Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist unveiled during a news conference Wednesday afternoon, involves two different strategies.
The first asks all long-term care facilities to conduct COVID-19 tests on at least 20% of staff and residents every two weeks.
“This effort will help us to be sure we are not missing potential outbreaks among our citizens who are most vulnerable during this pandemic,” Harrist said. “The earlier we identify potential trouble spots, the more we can take action to limit spread.”
The second portion of the plan requests a more comprehensive strategy for any facility in which a worker or resident is found to have the virus. If a positive case is discovered, the plan requests all staff and residents in the facility to be tested weekly until the potential risks of an outbreak are gone. Harrist said the strategy will allow health officials to gain a better idea of how much the virus has spread in people not showing any symptoms.
“There is substantial evidence that asymptomatic persons and persons with mild illness contribute to transmission in these facilities,” Harrist added.
Wyoming reported 11 deaths as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as of Wednesday afternoon, along with 596 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases. Of those confirmed cases, 394 have recovered.
The latest death, announced Wednesday, was an adult man from Fremont County.
The announcement of the new testing strategy comes days after the Wyoming Department of Health confirmed at least nine cases in a Worland nursing home Sunday.
During the news conference, Gordon also announced his intention to sign all three bills approved by the Wyoming Legislature during its virtual special session last weekend.
The legislation covered a wide range of pressing issues amid the COVID-19 pandemic, largely focusing on initial distributions of the state’s $1.25 billion share of federal relief funding. The money, which cannot be used to replace lost revenue or balance budgets, will instead allow for expanded testing capacities and provide aid to towns and counties, among other things related to COVID-19.
“I’m a conservative, and I understand the reason why these funds have come our way,” Gordon said Wednesday. “I don’t take great deals of joy in spending these, but it is important that we get our economy up and going.”
The federal CARES Act funds will also go to three grant programs created through the approved bills. The programs, which will be run by the Wyoming Business Council, could receive up to $325 million of the state’s share in federal relief money, and they will expire at the end of this year.
The first program, with a pot of up to $50 million, aims to distribute grants of up to $50,000 quickly to Wyoming businesses with 50 employees or less. The program also gives preference to those businesses that missed out on the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
While the first aims to get short-term financial relief to businesses, the second program offers larger stipends, up to $300,000, for businesses with no more than 100 employees. That program will receive up to $225 million, the largest share of the three programs. The third program provides stipends to any Wyoming business for expenses on safety equipment related to COVID-19.
During the news conference Wednesday, Wyoming Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell said his goal was to get the first, smaller program open for applications by the beginning of June. The other two programs will take slightly longer to set up, he said.
“We’re working to ramp up as fast as possible to serve you, while ensuring that systems are secure, easy to use and prevent fraud,” Dorrell said.
The legislation approved during the special session also set up a program to help landlords who agree to not evict tenants impacted by the virus. The program, which also provides financial assistance on some mortgage payments, will be run by the Wyoming Community Development Authority.
WCDA Executive Director Scott Hoversland, who also spoke during the news conference Wednesday, said his team hopes to get the program ready by June 1, with a maximum of $2,000 available per applicant.
“We have worked with our cohorts in Montana that have a program running right now, since the seventh of May,” Hoversland said. “We will be able to mimic a lot of it, but again, all states are different in how they operate and their makeup.”
He added further updates will be available at the WCDA website, wyomingcda.com, in the coming days.