We Wrote It

Table of Contents

Sunrise Elementary students share their thoughts on the pandemic

via the Wyoming State Archives
Bechtel, Anna - 3rd grade teacher.pdf

via the Wyoming State Archives

Morales, Dwayne - 3rd grade COVID response.pdf

via the Wyoming State Archives

Perez, Jesse - 3rd grade COVID response.pdf

via the Wyoming State Archives

Reese Skeans - 3rd grade COVID response.pdf

via the Wyoming State Archives

Newman, Lyla - 3rd grade COVID response.pdf

via the Wyoming State Archives

Leaving my New Home: A Story of the COVID-19 Pandemic by Emily Wood

via the Wyoming State Archives
via Emily Wood and the Wyoming State Archives

A little over a year ago I received an email with fantastic news. After a long application and interview process, I read the words "Dear Emily, Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer... This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a High School English Teacher in Mozambique." I was so excited that I didn't even try to read the rest of the email at that time. There I was, in my final semester at the University of Wyoming, and I had an adventure to look forward to for the next two years of my life.

I spent the summer spending time with family and friends, enjoying Wyoming’s nature, researching and preparing for the next stage of my life. Although I have previously packed up my life to live in other countries I knew little about, such as Germany for a gap year after high school, or Lithuania and Indonesia to study abroad, this time was completely different and it was hard to know what to expect. At the end of August, I boarded a plane in Laramie, eventually made it to Philadelphia to meet the rest of my cohort of 55, and a couple days later we began our long journey to Mozambique.

via Emily Wood and the Wyoming State Archives

A lot happened in the following months, including three months of intensive language classes and training, all while living with Mozambican host families. I learned a lot of things during that time, from the Portuguese language to how to ralar coco and pilar amendoim for Mozambican dishes, and from navigating the local markets to perfecting mango collection methods (either climbing the tree to shake branches, or perfectly aiming unripe mangoes at some ripe ones further up).

At the end of November, we were officially sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers, and at the end of December we split up and each went to our separate sites and villages across the country.

My site had a lot of parallels to living in Wyoming, so I felt right at home and was excited to explore and go hiking. My village was situated on top of a mountain, close to the border of Zimbabwe where you could see the tea fields in every shade of green. There were plants everywhere, making the village and surroundings lush and rich with fresh fruits and vegetables. School didn't start for a month, so I had time to settle down into my new house and explore my community. Once school started, I had to sit through ridiculously long meetings on the uncomfortable wooden desks, but I also planned and taught my own lessons. It was very difficult adjusting to the education system and teaching rowdy classes of 50-60 students, but I was starting to figure out the ins and outs of it.

via Emily Wood and the Wyoming State Archives

On March 16th everything changed. Peace Corps Washington announced that all volunteers were being evacuated due to COVID-19, an unprecedented event in Peace Corps history. With airlines canceling flights, countries closing borders, and the situation rapidly evolving, we had to leave as soon as possible, a complicated undertaking. In the words of one of our staff members, "nobody has tried to evacuate the world before."

I had about 24 hours to pack up what I could from my home and the life I was building in a place that I was expecting to be for two years rather than three months. I had made things for my house to transform it into a home. I had built close relationships with my neighbors, colleagues, and friends, but I didn't have the chance to say goodbye to many of them. I made friends with some market women, even though I had not yet had the chance to learn their local language, and as a result could only communicate through someone else translating. I could already impress them with some simple greetings and the names of fruits and vegetables, but I wanted to learn more. I keep thinking about how I disappeared without a word, and how I have no way to communicate with them now that I am gone.

via Emily Wood and the Wyoming State Archives

I left all of my students, not knowing that Friday was my last day. They were just starting to become comfortable with my teaching, and were engaging with my lessons. This was after my learning curve of the teaching system and dealing with students who were indisciplinados. In my 9th grade class, I had just finished teaching a lesson on the future tense, and we listened and danced to Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” I left right after giving out a test to my 8th graders and not having a chance to grade it, after starting English lessons for the community, and after starting a theater club. My school was counting on me being there, and once school starts again I don’t know what they will do about my classes.

I left counterparts and colleagues, projects and competitions that we were preparing for, and the place that I had begun to call home. There were many things I was looking forward to, from more immediate things celebrating Dia das Mulheres Moçambicanas with my colleagues and buying a bike to further explore my area, to working on some photography projects of children with their handmade toys and market women with their goods. I hadn’t even taken out my camera because I wanted to settle in and become familiar first, so the only pictures I have are the few on my phone.

via Emily Wood and the Wyoming State Archives

At the University of Wyoming I wrote my senior honor’s thesis on voluntourism, which is the act of going abroad for a short period of time to work on a project that you may or may not have experience in. It has become more and more popular over the years, but is also widely criticized. The Peace Corps has some similarities to voluntourism programs, but also distinguishes itself by providing longer-term community immersion, and three months of training on top of experiences and skills that volunteers already bring in. The Peace Corps’ mission is:

To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

These goals are not to “change the world” or to “save those less fortunate.” Although each individual volunteer has their own personal reasons for serving, we all were committed to our projects and communities.

Leaving earlier than expected, with no chance to wrap up projects or say goodbye makes me feel as if I had participated in more of a voluntourism experience. Some of my projects were not yet sustainable because I had started them a week or two earlier, however, given the situation now, they would have likely stopped anyway. COVID-19 is having its effects in Mozambique, too, though it is hard to tell the true nature of the situation, especially in rural areas with few resources. The country is on lockdown, but many are not able to stay at home because they need to work and get food for themselves and their families.

Returning to the US has been a very difficult transition. The journey home itself was terrifying. Borders all around us were being closed and our flights had been booked and rebooked multiple times. The day before we left Mozambican President Nyusi announced a nation-wide lockdown, closing borders and schools, and stopping and canceling all visa processes beginning three days later. We eventually had a final flight plan, flying into Ethiopia and taking one of the three charter planes back to the US with Peace Corps Volunteers from around Africa.

The morning we left Mozambique I came down with a fever and was scared they wouldn’t let me board the plane. The Peace Corps medical staff came running into the airport last minute as we were in the security line, bringing me some medicine. But the journey wasn’t over yet, because I heard a rumor on that if one person on the plane had a fever when we landed in the US, the whole plane would have to be quarantined for two weeks. Upon arrival in the US, although we filled out forms regarding our health, nobody took them from us, nobody checked our temperatures, and there were no health stops. Finally, after more than three days of travel, I landed in Laramie and went back to my family’s home.

I had been mentally prepared to live in Mozambique for 27 months, planning to utilize that time to further integrate into my community, gain professional experience, and further cement my career plans and goals. I was not prepared to come back home so soon, let alone return to a country that was completely different from the one I left in August. After self-quarantining for two weeks, I’ve just remained at home with my family because there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Just like for many people, there are so many unknowns. I’m now considered a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), as if I had finished my entire time. Even though I was in Mozambique for a fraction of the time I expected to be there, I have taken a lot away from the experience. I have lived another lifestyle, have gotten by and been happy with fewer things, and have learned the importance of a strong community, all lessons which will remain with me.

All Peace Corps operations have been suspended, and there is no knowing when they will be back up and running and when countries can start receiving volunteers again. There’s no guarantee that we can return to our original country of service, let alone the same communities we were living in. All of this leaves us volunteers in limbo. It is too late to apply for most graduate programs, and most jobs that are in my field require at least two years of experience, not to mention the economy that we’ve been dropped into. So for now, I’ve just been trying to keep busy with hobbies, learning new things, and searching for grad programs that are still open, and jobs, because that is all I can do at this point. It often feels hopeless and sometimes pointless because I’m not supposed to be here, but things often don’t go according to plan and we have to adapt, as we all are learning right now. I miss my community and my friends, neighbors, landlord, and fellow volunteers, and hope that one day I’ll be able to back, either as a volunteer again or just to visit, and I hope that Peace Corps will soon return to Mozambique. Until then, I just have to make the best of the situation.

via Emily Wood and the Wyoming State Archives

"Hey Momma" An ode to quarantined parents-parody of Dance Monkey, Tones and I" by Jenie Borders

"The Tale of the Extremely Sad Cabin: A Children's Story" by Mary Mortensen Burman

via the Wyoming State Archives

*click on the preview below to view the full story in a separate window!

the tale of the extremely sad cabin.pdf
via the Wyoming State Archives

Covid-19 Piece for Wyoming Archives by Helen M. Pugsley

via the Wyoming State Archives

I think for me my last "normal day" was January 17th 2020 when I was fired from my job without reason or warning. Suddenly, in March the whole world was in the same fearful place I was. "How will I feed my family?", "Will my savings last?", "I guess my trip overseas is cancelled." We'd like to call capitalism an ugly, greedy, thing. And it is. But the people I have seen worry most in these months are the poor. The immune compromised people who had to quit their jobs, people who live with elderly relatives and young children, the folks who were working with all their might but then were laid off.

My last "normal day" before the virus, my friends and I went to the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Nebraska. Afterwards we went to Wal-Mart. In true Midwestern fashion I gave a woman the "Ope, lemme squeeze past ya there." for some hooks. And in true Midwestern fashion we fell into conversation about the hooks my shy friend, standing right over there needed because she paints to unwind from college.

That was the last time I gave someone the "Ope, lemme squeeze past ya." in a store. Now you just either walk away to circle the isle like a shark, or you stand there awkwardly, six feet away, wondering Do I say something like "Can I squeeze past ya?" or do I just wait? I don't know what's good manners anymore.

Weirder still, walking around Torrington I'll see members of the public I served and like when I was working. Sometimes they don't recognize me with half of my face covered! But when they do we fall into conversation six feet apart. And I keep thinking to myself "Do you think they think I'm trying to get away from them? There's so much space between us." I am painfully socially awkward so I had a former job send me to training so I could talk to people. You're supposed to be about three feet apart, angle your body away from them so it's less intimidating, and other people will join your conversation. Also, don't forget to break eye contact every three seconds.

My parents and I are close. We share the same village. So some time in, probably April, I got stir crazy enough that I went grocery shopping in Torrington for both households. On the way home Mom called me and asked me to pick up Lira's. When I got there I looked at my mask and sighed. It was a face mask I bought to keep my face warm in winter. The design is the rainbow jaw of a vampire's skull. As cool as I think it is I was sick of wearing it. It was my last stop anyway! I left it on the seat.

I stood waiting in the parking lot with about ten other people. It was Friday night. Their busiest night! And since we were all spaced out six feet away from each other it didn't really invite conversation. I just remember serving the dirtiest glare to this fellow who had the audacity to walk within a foot of me. He was shocked and kept his distance after that. Thankfully my food came shortly after that and I drove away. I'm a bit torn about the glare. What a mean thing to do! But how dare you, sir?!

Saying this might get me in trouble but I think it needs said. Walking around shopping the past couple of months, people kind of seem angry or afraid that others are wearing masks. It can't all be that I'm wearing a rainbow skull! I mean, on Halloween one year I had a man throw his shoulder into a brick wall to get away from me because we passed on the sidewalk and I was dressed as a witch. I still get some disapproving looks when I wear the mask I sewed out of silk.

I think people are afraid. It's easier to ignore a problem you know you have no control over than pretend a scrap of fabric will save you. I try to remember to wear mine out of respect for essential workers whose businesses I keep patroning. I'm afraid too. Not so much for myself, but three out of five people in my family are immune compromised. Then it came out that felines can get it. I have two cats who were unfortunate enough to get stuck with me. I guess I'm better than the raccoon that tried to eat them.

We're all over it. Quarantine. The weather's warm. We've flooded the internet with homemade memes, baked bread, sewed masks. Pretty soon we're going to go outside just because. Fear or not. I wanted to travel the world and the cruel irony is that now I have the time to do it. It's like the world is in some sort of suspended animation. There's so much I haven't seen, but hey, at least I've seen most every VHS tape in mine and my parents' house!

Metastatic Breast Cancer and COVID-19 by Mary Evelyn Burman

via the Wyoming State Archives

Laramie, Wyoming

May 24, 2020

In July of 2018, my husband and I learned that my recent scans showed Stage IV metastatic breast cancer widely distributed in my ribs, spine and pelvis. I had been diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2011, treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and had been doing well. However, I developed achy chest wall pain in June 2018 that led to the workup revealing advanced cancer. Once diagnosed, cancer haunts the recesses of the mind, so I was not totally surprised by the news. Still the diagnosis of metastatic cancer threw the proverbial wrench into the works of my life and that of my family’s. As a result, I spent the last 18 months learning to live with advanced cancer and its associated treatment. My husband and I made major changes in our lives. I stepped down from my administrative position at the University of Wyoming, he opted not to teach and focus on this work as an environmental consultant and we downsized to a smaller house with all we needed on one floor. After a year of being back on the faculty at UW, I made the decision to retire in May 2020 to spend time with family and friends and involve myself in some volunteer work that I had put off due to the demands of work. Despite the uncertainty, my husband and I were looking forward to this next phase of life.

And then in early March of 2020, coronavirus entered our world. My husband and I were in Lake Placid watching our daughter and the UW Nordic team compete at the USCSA nationals. I wondered if I was making a mistake to travel given my suppressed immune system from the oral chemotherapy I take, but even Anthony Fauci, at least in his public statements, didn’t seem too concerned saying we weren’t at the point we needed to change our daily lives because of the coronavirus. The airlines were flying, so my husband and I landed in Albany, New York on a Sunday evening and stayed with friends. In the morning, our friend, who was watching the news, yelled upstairs as my husband and I were packing our bags for our drive to Lake Placid. We watched in disbelief as the stock market plummeted requiring temporary closure of the stock exchange, one of the first of several dramatic drops over the next couple of weeks.

With some old friends from Connecticut, we settled into our Airbnb apartment outside of Lake Placid near the ski hill where the Nordic competitions were held. We were gripped watching the news as the numbers of cases increased and schools closed down in the east. We had made arrangements to pick up our daughter’s high school friend so she could come to Lake Placid to see our daughter, but Middlebury, where she is a senior, closed down early that week and she was not able to leave nor were we able to visit. We also had planned to meet my nephew from Montreal near the US-Canadian border, but there were concerns that the border would be shut down and my nephew and his family could get stuck in the USA (the border did close about a week later).

We had looked forward to our 9 days in New York enjoying the Adirondacks, one of our favorite places, but I had a growing realization that I was one of the “at risk” people that the experts were saying needed to be vigilant and shelter away from others. I called my brother, a public health official, to get his advice about the safest way to get back home. I was able to arrange to come home early taking shorter flights that would hopefully lessen the likelihood of exposure. My husband and I kept our distance as much as possible in the airports, which was not all that difficult given the already decreasing number of people travelling. We each had a bottle of hand sanitizer which we used frequently, and we tried to minimize exposure to things like the seatback tray tables on the airplanes which reportedly are a haven for a variety of microbes. We arrived home safely, quarantined ourselves for 14 days and were relieved not to have any signs of illness at the end of 2 weeks. Fortunately, our daughter and the rest of the team also made it home safely and were illness free after 14 days, too.

Despite the President’s assertion that this would all be over by Easter, life did not return to normal, whatever that is, after our 14-day quarantine. Wyoming, while not officially closing down as many states did, banned gatherings of more than 10, stopped all but essential business, and strongly advised everyone to follow social distancing guidelines and wash hands frequently. UW sent students home for spring break in mid-March with the rest of the semester to be taught on-line. Like so many others, my husband and settled into a new way of working. He set up his home office on the dining room table, while I taught and wrote from the desk in our fireplace room. Other than hassles of managing competing Zoom meetings, the transition went smoothly. We were grateful on a daily basis that our daughter is 23 and living independently as a graduate student, and that we were not called upon to home school her doubting that we would have excelled as her teachers.

For a short period of time, metastatic cancer receded from my consciousness. COVID-19 took its place and dominated our lives. We watched PBS Newshour and poured over the Boomerang and the New York Times hungry for the latest morbidity and mortality numbers, anxious for information and reassurance from Dr. Fauci and other public health and communicable disease experts, and mortified by the President’s miscommunication and inability to take any responsibility for the federal handling of the pandemic. However, after several weeks, we settled into our new shelter-at-home-life and while COVID-19 continued to be prominent in our lives, metastatic cancer returned to its old role flitting in and out of my mind with its unwanted reminders of life’s uncertainty and the inevitability of my death.

Always keen to know more, I read articles about how those with cancer are coping with COVID-19. Like others, those with cancer have the same trials managing work from home or figuring out how to safely work in essential businesses, trying somehow to be substitute teachers for their children, managing the complex care of aging family members, negotiating the new shopping world to get needed groceries and other supplies, and figuring out ZOOM, HouseParty, FaceTime, MicrosoftTeams and the many other videoconferencing services to stay connected with friends and family. However, clearly having cancer adds to the complexity of life during a pandemic presenting multiple cancer-related hardships, e.g., getting needed diagnostic tests, surgeries and chemotherapy, managing family and friend interactions given a depressed immune system, and coping with yet another significant challenge when emotional and physical reserves may already be depleted to name a few.

Interestingly, several writers have argued, not denying the many challenges, that having or having had cancer actually helps during times like this given the resilience gained from experiencing cancer that requires figuring out how to live meaningfully despite lots of uncertainty and vulnerability. There is some truth to this. I’ve had to learn to keep the distressing thoughts about metastatic breast cancer, which I’ve determined will not go away, in the periphery of my daily life. It takes intentional shifting of the mind away from the thoughts to other more vital matters in order to hold them at bay. I’ve learned to focus my life on the most important things, such as undertaking some new volunteer activities that I’ve put aside during my busy academic life. I’ve reconnected with family and new and old friends and have cherished the deepening of these relationships.

No doubt, my relatively newfound skills and knowledge of living with uncertainty and vulnerability have helped me with the daily ups and downs of the coronavirus circus. Other than a few brief panicky moments, I’ve been able to acknowledge the fact that none of us, including me, can control this virus in such a way to feel completely safe. Being vigilant and prudent are important, but even carefully following recommended guidelines, I can’t reduce my risk to zero. Along with so many others, I’ve learned how to have virtual coffee breaks and happy hours or lunch with friends, family and colleagues. As the weather warmed up this spring, I started visiting with people in the front yard with outside furniture strategically placed 6-8 feet apart and in such a way that the sun and prevailing wind, which is ever present in Laramie, will kill any aerosolized particles. We found a way to celebrate my mother’s 90 birthday with a drive by parade and Zoom sessions with family in Michigan, Quebec, Colorado, and Washington. I’m contributing to my community by working with health and social service nonprofits in my county as they provide services in a way that safeguards staff and clients while they prepare for what will most likely be a long economic downtown in Wyoming.

But just like advanced cancer, the specter of COVID-19 has raised some uncomfortable issues. That doesn’t mean all things are bad since the pandemic started. I have loved the move to telehealth visits with my oncologist, so I do not have to drive so often to Ft. Collins for appointments. In addition, the interaction is more intimate and direct via telehealth. I’ve continued to get other needed cancer care at the local hospital where I have felt safe and well-attended to.

However, all is not bliss in the COVID-19 world just because I have cancer. The pandemic has once again reshaped my self-identity. I have always seen myself as an athletic, fit woman who could strap on a heavy backpack and hike up into the Wind Rivers or Absarokas for a week in the wilds. Advanced cancer certainly challenged that image. While I still exercise regularly including hiking in the mountains, the rogue cells have damaged my bones, with a rib fracture or two around the time of my diagnosis in 2018, making some of my former activities too risky. A fall would most likely be very painful and detrimental to my overall health.

Yet COVID-19 challenges my idealized identity even more. My white blood cells, which are critical to fighting infection, are chronically low because of the treatments I take for my advanced cancer. I have few side effects from the medications and have little in the way of pain, so I look healthy to most people, but my immune system may not be able to handle a serious coronavirus infection. It’s hard for me to believe that I am one of those COVID-19 at-risk people. Consequently, I struggle with the need to be vigilant and physically isolate for many months. How can I maintain my sanity and my relationships without hugs, gossiping at a coffeeshop with friends, long conversations about life with my husband and daughter (who lives in a different household), and sharing meals with my extended family?

Most jarring is that COVID-19 has disrupted my concept of death. Coming to grips with mortality is never easy but with advanced cancer, thoughts of death are never far away. For me, it has been terribly distressing to see pictures on the news of COVID-19 patients in New York City clearly very ill and hooked up to ventilators. But even more troubling and startling is the realization that I could end up in that predicament. Prior to the pandemic, I thought I would know when my death was near and the dying process would occur gradually over several months giving me time with my family and friends and time to complete unfinished business. I would be accompanied by expert hospice nurses who would support my family and control distressing symptoms such as pain. But people with COVID-19 in the hospital often die within a week or two, with hard to manage shortness of breath, and may not be lucid or communicative. Loved ones are unable to hold hands or kiss their family member good-bye. This is not the kind of death I want. I have had those uncomfortable conversations with those who are my health care proxies, telling them (and myself) that I am very leery of being intubated and would only want to do so if there were no signs of multi-organ disease and there was a reasonable chance I could survive. Otherwise, I want to be at home in the company of my family and with hospice involved to control symptoms and provide support.

COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. Having advanced cancer has helped me in some ways cope with the pandemic, but it has also created some new challenges. However, ultimately it is critical that I go on living, enjoying my friends and family, and contributing in a positive way to my community and my state.

Inspirational Quote by Carol Miller

via the Wyoming State Archives

"We must learn to sing our songs in a strange land. We may feel abandoned in an empty, merciless wilderness full of detritus and death, but we who are left must travel through the in between timespace listening, seeing, attending afresh. We need to develop a thriving, forward-looking age by compassionately transforming the mournful terrain into a realm of wisdom, hope, and love. We have the responsibility to faithfully search for the possibilities and implement the discoveries that will bring us into a newly imagined dimension of interconnection with and understanding of each other and our world."

-Carol Miller

A Collection of Four Poems by Steven Bates

via the Wyoming State Archives

Steven Bates submitted four different poems for the COVID-19 Project. Click on each of the collapsible text items below with the title of the piece to view each of his poems.


The veterans aged from Vietnam

Now fear more than another bomb

They fear a tiny virus spread

That infiltrates into one's head

It starts with nasal drips and cough

Proceeds with fever, then doesn't slough

It killed the old, the weak not immune

But now the deaths have changed their tune

It took the life of a 20-year-old

Who thought at first he had a cold.

Now we've hunkered in our home

Forbid by government to roam

The stores shut down; the cupboard bare

With hoarders stingy, afraid to share

Social distance is the new catchphrase

How we catch it is still a haze

But though this virus has all in fear

Especially those in their Golden year

I know with faith we'll see this thru

So pray for me, and I’ll pray for you


The CARES Act finally passes

to help America and its masses

Though it's designed to help the panic

whoever wrote it must be manic

it's filled with pork, with moronic frills

having nothing to do with stopping the ills

that Americans are facing while out of work

confined in homes so a virus to shirk

Stores and shops are boarded up

restaurants closed, nowhere to sup,

Groups reported to authorities

by nosy neighbors and busy bodies

Laws are made to take our rights

TP shortage causing fights

Fear vibrating thru the streets

Brawls in stores over egg and meats

Yet Congress packs the act with pork

so much stuffed it's signed with fork

though stipend checks are now enroute

the pork makes all the help so mute

It's not America they tried to aid

the Arts, elections all got paid

But hopefully this all will fade

and thru this pork we all will wade

so till this virus dies away

call your Congressman and say

Enough of Pork, political games

or else your jobs will lose your claims

We'll vote you out, replace your seat

and kick you back upon the street

So here's to hoping you get these funds

and stay safe, wash hands, and Love you tons!!

Corona Blues

Panicked shopping, hoarding food

TP shortage, oh how rude

Just a cough will clear the aisles

As this thing spreads across the miles

Streets shut down, the nation fears

Never seen the likes in all my years

The whole thing seems unprecedented

Is it natural or invented?

Was it created, or just appeared?

Is this the end days we all feared?

Is anxiety justified?

while we hunker down and hide?

How long will our World shut down?

Before a cure is ever found.

Is our reaction over the top,

or not enough for this thing to stop?

Have we been beaten by a bug?

Like War of the Worlds, the Martian thug?

Did H.G. Wells predict how it'd go

with his classic radio show?

Only we're the Martians, the invading force

That Earth is removing in due course

But I say stop and give this time

Ease your angst and hear this rhyme

We will all survive this in the end

Just respect each other, and be a friend

Don't hoard the paper, don't spread the virus

Just have faith, we'll end this crisis.

Vibration of Fear

Fear is fed from media's teats

As panic echoes thru empty streets

Suspicious coughs met with disdain

Fevers make faces pale and drain

Stay in place not quite the law

but we hide at home in angst and awe

Shelter down and don't go out

Else with COVID you'll have a bout

that's the tone of fear vibration

strumming thru the entire nation

But are our rights so easily taken,

The Constitution so quick forsaken?

I say this now, no matter the scare

I fought for those so don't you dare!

We cannot allow fear mongering press

to strip Lady Liberty, have her undress

standing in shame of all she lost

with fear ruling lives, no matter the cost

but let her stand proud, torch held high

together we'll get thru this by and by

no need for laws to make this rule

just play it safe and keep your cool

This article appeared in the Wyoming Tribute Eagle/WyomingNews.com on March 11, 2021

Darkness and light: Reflections on a year with COVID-19

ICU nurse Alissa Robinson speaks about the difficulties of the last year Wednesday, March 10, 2021, inside Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. The first case of COVID-19 appeared in Wyoming on March 11, 2020. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Although Wyoming is the least-populated state in the country, its people thrive on coming together – whether it’s at a rodeo, a fundraiser or a University of Wyoming football game. As the saying goes, “Wyoming is one small town with really long streets.”

So when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Cowboy State, exactly one year ago today, many aspects of life had to change. While some folks continued living their lives as normal – even hosting protests at the Capitol against mask requirements – the majority of cities, counties, towns, local businesses and nonprofits in the state felt the sometimes crushing effects of the pandemic.

Hospital Chaplain Jill Ruiz looks at Chaplain Steve Tims as they speak about the challenges of the last year Wednesday, March 10, 2021, inside Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

What’s even harder to quantify is the life and love lost to the coronavirus. Nearly 110 Laramie County residents, many from long-term care facilities, had their lives cut short due to COVID-19 – some by years and some by decades. In total, nearly 700 Wyomingites have died so far from the virus.

For the team at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, each and every death was taken to heart. ICU nurse Alissa Robinson said she can name patients who have died because the experience was so “traumatic.”

“People were saying, ‘It’s a 1% death rate; it’s not that big of a deal.’ But it is,” Robinson said. “It’s not a big deal until it’s your mom or your dad or your grandma in that room.”

Even now, as vaccinations are being distributed and the number of COVID-19 patients at CRMC has declined, the staff said their experience over the last year isn’t something that can be forgotten.

“I wish we could bring people into the hospital, because I don’t think people actually grasp the realness of it all,” Robinson said.

For health care workers and other residents in Wyoming, the COVID-19 situation unraveled quickly and snowballed into something no one could anticipate. As the CRMC staff put it, no one in medical school prepares you for a pandemic of this scale.

The state’s first case was confirmed on Wednesday, March 11, and by Monday, March 16, Laramie County schools planned to close for three weeks. They ultimately remained closed the rest of the school year.

Then, on March 19, the first state health orders were laid out, closing schools, theaters, bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, employee cafeterias, self-serve buffets, salad bars, gyms, conference rooms and museums.

At that time, Gov. Mark Gordon said in a news release, “This governor has never been inclined to overstep local authority, but these are unprecedented times. It is critical that there is uniformity across the state in how social distancing measures are implemented.”

The closures and the uncontrollable nature of the virus led to an unprecedented economic downturn, which placed more pressure on Laramie County’s nonprofits to meet the demand for food assistance and help with rent and utilities.

Registered nurse Nicki Montoya speaks about the difficulties of the last year Wednesday, March 10, 2021, inside Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Glad to be able to help

For the NEEDS Inc. food pantry, the higher demand translated to a 369% increase in the amount of food they were getting out the door and into the community. Pantry Manager Damon Hart said although it was difficult to see so many people struggling, the experience reinforced the mission of NEEDS and why the volunteers do what they do.

At the start of the pandemic, it was still unclear exactly how transmissible the virus was and what precautions would keep people safe. Hart said they sanitized frequently and did everything they could to keep their doors open and help more people.

“Knowing how much we mean to the community, it really changed our outlooks a lot,” Hart said. “Hearing their stories made us really grateful that we were able to help.”

Their ability to assist so many residents was made possible by businesses and the larger community stepping up to support the cause. Most charitable organizations had to cancel or postpone fundraisers or pivot to online events, while also trying to meet significantly higher demand for services. Given that, the people of Cheyenne were vital in helping fill those funding gaps.

Hart said, “I would hate to know what would’ve happened if we had not received that help.”

ICU nurse Alissa Robinson speaks about the difficulties of the last year Wednesday, March 10, 2021, inside Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

“Oh my goodness, we have COVID”

While the economic impact of the closures and the virus have persisted throughout the pandemic, Laramie County’s case numbers remained steadily low throughout the summer of 2020 compared to what was to come in the fall. From June to the start of September, the number of new cases generally ranged between 10 and 50 each day, according to New York Times data.

On Oct. 1, the number of daily cases jumped to 135, and on Nov. 1, Wyoming saw 425 new confirmed cases. By the middle of November, the state saw a peak of new daily COVID-19 cases at just over 1,200.

During that October peak, the virus reached Cheyenne resident Elsa McHenry, her husband and her father-in-law. All showed symptoms of COVID-19. For McHenry and her husband, the initial headaches and stuffy noses were easy to write off as being caused by smoke from regional wildfires.

But then, McHenry said, “My father-in-law let me know that he had a fever, and he had taken Tylenol and ibuprofen and it didn’t go away. I immediately was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we have COVID.’”

Her father-in-law tested positive, but McHenry and her husband were already sure of their diagnosis, so they did not go to get tested so as to not infect anyone else. She said she wished the state had a better process for testing people who knew they had COVID-19, so the case numbers would be more accurate without having to risk exposing other folks getting tested like teachers and students.

Toward the start of November, the state found a solution to that issue and used CARES Act relief funding to pay for at-home COVID-19 tests from Wyoming residents.

But without that option in October, quarantine was a serious matter for the McHenrys, who were always sure to let their grocery delivery drivers know that they were in a COVID-19 positive household. She said she hopes we’ve learned some lessons about generally accepted practices in society.

“For so long, we found it perfectly appropriate to stuff as many people as we could into a small space for work, or it was appropriate for you to push through having a cold because work came first,” McHenry said. “I think it was an eye-opener – that we really needed to take a step back and maybe have better practices for healthy work environments.”

Hospital Chaplains Steve Tims and Jill Ruiz speaks about the difficulties of the last year Wednesday, March 10, 2021, inside Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Looking forward

COVID-19 case numbers in Wyoming are better than they were, and have remained on the downturn except for a spike after the holidays. More and more residents are receiving their vaccines, which help lessen the hospital’s COVID-19 workload, though CRMC staff did voice some concerns about whether the lifting of the mask mandate next week might cause another spike.

Unfortunately, though, more pandemics will occur in the future, just as they have throughout history. Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman offered some takeaways for what should be done differently next time.

While he commended the team at city-county health for “rising to the challenge” during COVID-19, Hartman said, “Dealing with future outbreaks will also depend on support from local, state and national government, and numerous other public and private institutions.”

The Wyoming Legislature is currently hearing a number of bills related to the pandemic, one to limit the power of state health orders. That gained final approval from the Senate on Wednesday and would require legislative approval for statewide health orders to be extended beyond 60 days, as well as a locally elected body’s approval for any local orders to last longer than 30 days.

On the other hand, Hartman voiced his support for Senate File 30, which would establish a post-pandemic task force to review any possible changes to the process.

“We should avoid rushed, piecemeal legislation that could have unintended consequences or hamper the response to future pandemics,” Hartman said.

On the same note, he said the politicization of basic health recommendations like mask wearing and social distancing was an issue in Wyoming and across the country. He gave the example of Taiwan, which has 23 million people and high compliance with public health measures. They had only 977 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths.

“Wyoming, with 578,000 people, has had 46,550 cases and 691 deaths. The U.S. has over half a million deaths,” Hartman said. “By turning basic public health measures into political arguments, we have become our own worst enemy, and nationally, this has cost thousands of lives.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.