NCSD Trustees talk school closures; could last several weeks or a month - Casper, WY Oil City News
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NCSD Trustees talk school closures; could last several weeks or a month

Dr. Mark Dowell, M.D., Dr. Ghazi Ghanem, M.D., both infectious disease experts at WMC, are joined by Anna Kinder with the Natrona County Health Department, and Dr. Ron Ivenson, M.D., during a press conference on coronavirus plans. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Natrona County School District Board of Trustees held a work session on Wednesday, March 25 to discuss the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in the state.

The trustees heard from Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell during the work session who told the trustees, “I’ll answer any questions I can as honestly as I can.”

Trustee Dave Applegate asked Dowell to give a sense of how long the virus could impact the community and how long the community might expect school and other community closures to last.

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Careful to note that data is lacking on the spread of COVID-19 in the state and careful to note that he could only provide tentative projections, Dowell said that he couldn’t “see us in a month necessarily being able to go back to school.”

Dowell noted that this would not be his decision alone to make, as guidance from state and federal officials as well as other health experts would ultimately inform decisions about closures.

“If you look at what’s going on nationally, we’re at the beginning,” Dowell told the trustees.

He said that there is no reason to think that Casper or Wyoming “are somehow insulated in a bubble.”

“We anticipate this [outbreak] going up a lot more in the next two weeks, even with the social distancing,” Dowell said.

However, gauging the spread of the disease is difficult due to testing shortages and because Wyoming is a rural area unlike major cities where the virus has spread and been monitored more closely over the planet.

“We don’t have good information as to who is infected,” Dowell said. “We don’t have that number because we don’t have mass testing.”

“Until we have more testing, we won’t have the information that we need now.”

Dowell said that his advice about closures was keeping older populations in mind.

“Kids do well with this,” he said. “It is not that age group I’m worried about.”

He added that in Wyoming, there is some evidence of “community spread,” meaning that the virus is being spread between people in Wyoming who haven’t necessarily traveled outside the state.

Dowell cautioned that data being reported on positive COVID-19 cases was more reflective of the spread of the virus two weeks ago. He said that testing “reflects infection that may have occurred up to two weeks ago…not a reflection of what is going on now.”

Dowell said that other areas of concern for him included if the virus spreads into homeless populations or long term care facilities.

If the virus spreads into the homeless population, Dowell said the virus “will blossom” all over the county. He said a spread into long-term care facilities could have a similar result.

“We are not alarmist, we are just staying up to date,” Dowell said.

Trustee Clark Jensen asked Dowell about experimental treatment for COVID-19 he has been reading about involving the use of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.

“It might be potentially useful,” Dowell said. “The combination was studied in six patients.”

He cautioned that studies with those treatments were not done in a traditional scientific manner. But he said there was some indication that the treatment could cut down on the amount of time someone is contagious.

But the treatment has not been shown to affect mortality consequences of the virus. Dowell said that he thinks the treatments will be reserved for “use in the sickest of patients.”

He said that supplies are limited and health care professionals would save these medicines for more extreme cases.

“We really don’t know if it is going to make a difference yet,” Dowell said.

He added that vaccine research is also being conducted to immunize people from COVID-19.

In any case, Dowell added of COVID-19 that, “We know we’re going to see more.”

He said that was why county and state closures were necessary.

“By the time you are reactive instead of proactive, you are too late,” Dowell said. “We’re not doing this to torture the community.”

“I’m proud of what we’ve done, though I don’t like it any better than anyone. I’m looking at big picture.”

Applegate thanked Dowell for his honesty during the meeting and said the district should be transparent as well.

“We need to be honest with our community about that and our school communities,” he said.

Dowell added that health officials will be watching the development of COVID-19 as it spreads in South America. He said that since they are in winter when the northern hemisphere is in summer, that might give some guidance on whether communities may expect impacts from COVID-19 when the next school year starts in the fall.

The district is sending surveys out to all families to gauge whether they have access to the internet and devices to facilitate distance learning for students with the closures possibly extending beyond April 5.

At this time, the district is not requiring students participate in any educational opportunities teachers are offering. The district has not made decisions on what will be done if the closures are extended, but that is something the trustees are discussing with other NCSD officials.

“We miss our students,” Board Chair Rita Walsh said. “We know you have a lot of questions about what is next. We are actively working together with local and state agencies…to determine a path forward.”

The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:

What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.

If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.

Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.

For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email:

  • Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.

A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.