COVID spike prompts new guidelines in Jackson

JACKSON — Jackson is ringing in the new year with hundreds of new COVID-19 cases.

The region’s pre-Christmas surge — a 386% increase in weekly cases, according to the Teton County Health Department — brought new daily cases to 54, higher than delta’s peak in early August. Health officials say there’s more to blame than just holiday testing.

“I think we’re seeing a real surge here,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said Tuesday. “We’ve had people travel for other holidays like Thanksgiving and not seen big surges. I think we all assume that it means the omicron variant is here.”

With Teton County leading the state in the number of active cases, Riddell cautioned that more infections could mean another surge in hospitalizations, despite early indications the omicron variant is less severe.

Dr. Jim Little Jr., who practices at the hospital’s urgent care center, put it this way: “It does appear from the early data that omicron might be as much as 50% less severe. But if it is twice as contagious, we will still see the same number of hospitalizations and deaths. We aren’t out of the woods yet.”

That warning came Friday, Christmas Eve, in a Facebook post addressed to friends and family where Little wrote that “now is not the time to be relaxing our preventative measures.”

But Teton County is changing its response to the pandemic: Starting this weekend, masks will no longer be required in indoor spaces throughout the county, including on Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s 100-passenger Aerial Tram and in public school classrooms.

“Obviously, the timing of the expiration of our mask mandate with this surge is not ideal,” Riddell said Tuesday.

“But,” he added, “I think the reason we have things like emergency public health orders is to try to prevent severe morbidity and mortality. And if that just isn’t happening anymore, then, you know, those emergency measures also aren’t necessary.”

One other requirement that’s no longer necessary is the 10-day quarantine, at least for asymptomatic residents. Based on new guidance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Monday, people who test positive for the coronavirus but experience no symptoms are asked to isolate for just five days.

The new recommendation, which should make it easier for businesses to remain open, is based on the idea that infected people are more likely to transmit the virus during the first few days of infection.

For St. John’s Health, which is already 10% short-staffed, the reduced quarantines could enable critical services to continue, even if a significant portion of staffers become infected.

Same for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which will no longer require masking indoors once the countywide mandate is lifted Jan. 1.

COVID cases overwhelmed the Health Department’s contact tracers when they returned to work this Monday; they are currently prioritizing outreach to the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Teton County had the most active cases in the state as of Tuesday evening with 254, up from 200 active cases on Monday and 92 on Dec. 21. So far, COVID hospitalizations, which tend to trail infections by a few weeks, have not spiked at St. John’s.