My Wyoming: Why is Cowboy State so Exceptional When it Comes to Surviving COVID-19?

Cattle grazing near Elk Mountain in southern Wyoming.
Cattle grazing near Elk Mountain in southern Wyoming.

Cattle grazing near Elk Mountain in southern Wyoming.

The statistics here in Wyoming are incredible.

No other state, and perhaps no other place in the world, is coming across as “healthy” as we are, when it comes to this once-in-a-century plague called coronavirus or COVID-19?

Out of a population of 556,000 people, we have had just seven deaths, as of this writing on May 13. Out of 510 people testing positive plus another 159 who were probable but not tested, we have just those seven deaths. And although these folks might have lived longer, all seven were either quite elderly or had compromising medical problems like kidney failure, diabetes and respiratory issues.

So far, only 14,000 people have been tested. That is a tiny 2.5% of the population. Two counties still have not had a single positive. Some 477 who tested positive are now considered recovered.

Why are we so much healthier than everybody else?

There have been more traffic deaths, ten during this period, than we have had COVID-19 deaths.

Let’s give a shout-out to our Wyoming people who, generally, are pretty good citizens. Our businesses, churches, social groups and almost everything else voluntary shut down over the past six weeks. As a result, our economy was wrecked. It was destroyed.

The Wyoming business world was demolished because of fears of a worldwide pandemic that killed fewer people than traffic accidents.

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Nobody could have predicted that we would be so much safer than the rest of the world.

Wyoming is a big lonely empty place. It has six people per square mile. New York City has 27,000 people per square mile. This ‘Big City’ is full of crowded apartments and subways. It is both a wonderful and a claustrophobic place for most Wyomingites. Watching the horror on TV of their emergency rooms and listening to the daily beseeching from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, well it was easy to believe the world was coming to an end. The plague was coming for us, too.

Milan, Italy, has 19,000 people per square mile. Have you been to Italy? People there live long lives. It is a wonderful place. These are truly the most loving and sociable people on the planet with many three-generation family units. Italian life span is 83.2 years. This compares to 78.5 in the U.S.A. Watching the carnage on TV was awful. Yet 80% of the people who died in Italy were over 60 years ago and most had underlying health conditions. Was this going to be our future? Back on March 31, it looked like it could be.

But it was not. Most definitely.

Here in Wyoming, the hardest hit place for both deaths and positive testing has been the Wind River Indian Reservation. In our state, there is no group of people more family-oriented and more sociable than our Shoshone and Arapaho friends.

They live in large family units covering three or four generations. It is normal for the generations to congregate together constantly. There is a lot of love among these folks and they care deeply for each other. But that tendency created a potential of the easy spread of this COVID-19 disease.

Health officials and tribal leaders reportedly bought 6,000 testing kits and are testing thousands. They are offering some of the only drive-by testing opportunities in the state and you do not need to be sick to get tested. You just need to be a tribal member. This is why Fremont County is showing one-third of all the positive tests in the state. One family had 14 members who tested positive.

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On a personal note, my wife Nancy and I are in what might be called a vulnerable group because of our ages and underlying health issues. We have been in self-quarantine at our house since March 19. Our kids worry that we are not behaving. But we are. And we intend to continue.

But the Wyoming economy opened up this week. People are recommended to wear masks, practice social distancing and use lots of sanitizer.

Our people are suffering from cabin fever and are anxious to resume their normal lives.

Seems like folks think we need to worry about the medical health or the economic health of our population. I say it is medical health and the economic health of the people. We have to take care of both.

Based on the statistics, the shutdown of the Wyoming economy will probably be judged, sometime in the future, as a gigantic mistake and a huge miscalculation. But what can you do?

I will never forget watching those images on TV of Italy and New York City. It was like we were living in the middle of science fiction movie or we had been invaded by aliens.

Just think about it – the world literally shut down. None of us living have ever been through anything like this.

So, to answer the question posed at the beginning, I think Wyoming people really are healthier. Folks here have been practicing social distancing since 1890. It was not hard, especially during wintry March and April days. Our economy did not need to be slammed shut but who knew? It was better to be safe than sorry.

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I glad the economy is opening up and I can see much better days ahead. Two years from now, we will look back at these times in amazement and wonder.

For now, let’s be smart and careful. But we need to hit the ground running and get our Wyoming back.