A Casper medical doctor painted a grim, almost dystopian view of dying people and overwhelmed medical systems and workers during an online briefing on Monday afternoon in Cheyenne.
Dr. David Wheeler, a Casper neurologist and Wyoming Medical Society president, spoke after an update on the state’s COVID-19 measures from Governor Mark Gordon.
“We desperately need you to stay at home so that we can stay at work,” said Wheeler to the camera.
Wheeler acknowledged the strain on small businesses, including his own private practice. However, he said the sacrifice was needed to prevent an unthinkable outcome.
Speaking for the Wyoming Medical Society, Wheeler asked doctors around the state to stop in-person visits and start using Telehealth as much as possible except for emergencies. He also asked for all elective surgeries to be canceled to help preserve dwindling medical supplies for the expected surge of COVID-19 patients.
“(The Wyoming Medical Society) vigorously supports any and all efforts at the national, state and local levels to encourage everybody to stay safely in their homes,” he said.
“If we wait until people start to show up in our emergency rooms gasping for breath, we have waited too long.”
In a phone call to Oil City News on Tuesday, Wheeler said 41 states and territories have adopted shelter-in-place orders. Wyoming is among the last holdouts, even after the Wyoming Medical Society sent the governor a letter last week recommending for such an order.
A number of states similar to Wyoming, including Idaho, Montana and Alaska, have enacted similar orders.
“They all have similar population densities and political leanings as Wyoming does, and yet their governors have determined that in order to avoid public health catastrophe that it’s the best and appropriate thing for them to do,” he said.
Wheeler said a shelter-in-place policy asks people to avoid all unnecessary contact with people outside of their homes, leaving only for food or essential medical care that can’t be done remotely.
So far Wyoming’s governor has pushed back on the idea of stricter orders, reiterating his hope that citizens voluntarily follow social distancing guidelines even after Wheeler’s remarks during Monday’s briefing.
“I know that (the governor) fervently believes that the best thing people can do is to shelter-in-place and to only go out when absolutely necessary,” said Wheeler, “but for him at this point the political reality of an order like that means that it’s not something he’s comfortable with doing today.”
Wheeler says it appears that not enough people are taking the current orders seriously, as groups of people and families still mingle and shop in businesses that remain open.
“There are quite a few people doing ordinary activities,” he said. “You drive up and down the street and see businesses with their lobbies open and people going in and out to do things that are clearly not to buy food or get needed healthcare.”
In a worst-case-scenario, Wheeler said medical supplies and resources will evaporate within weeks. The virus has taken longer to arrive because of our lower population. However, lower populations mean fewer hospital beds and medical professionals.
As of Tuesday morning, there have been 109 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Wyoming, with 24 listed as recovered. As with nearly everywhere else on the globe, the cases are expected to grow exponentially.
During Monday’s briefing, Wyoming’s State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said 16 COVID patients have required hospitalization.
“When our doctors and nurses start falling ill..and this will happen…there will be no backup,” said Wheeler on Monday.
“If we let this happen, people will die alone without access to basic care. People suffering from everyday maladies like heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, or coming in with appendicitis, will die too because there will be no room for them in our hospitals.”
While Teton County has enacted a shelter-in-place policy, Wheeler says such county orders don’t stop people from going to other counties and possibly making matters worse by further spreading the virus.
And while he thinks action now will still save lives, Wheeler told Oil City News he believes a statewide shelter-in-place order should’ve happened at least two weeks ago.
“Had we done that it’s very likely that we could’ve avoided people dying altogether in Wyoming,” said Wheeler. “That is no longer a possibility, people are going to start dying in the coming weeks, and many people are going to get sick and we’re going to outstrip the resources of the hospital.”