MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. — George Larsen laid out clipboards on the front of the gray Honda CR-V parked in front of the Little People’s Learning Center, a childcare facility for Yellowstone National Park employees. Fighting the wind and the slope of the hood, he put a consent form and test identification form on each clipboard. At the back of the car, Dr. Laurel Desnick, Park County’s health officer, gathered COVID-19 tests, swabs and vials in small plastic bags.

“If you were first today, we would’ve had these all ready for you,” Larsen told the childcare workers, some of whom stood on social distancing markers painted in blue on the sidewalk. 

The Little People’s Learning Center was the fourth testing stop of the day — Wednesday, June 3 — for Larsen and Desnick, and their third full day traversing Yellowstone and its gateway communities to test asymptomatic employees of the park and local businesses.

Larsen, an officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is assigned to consult with national parks in Montana and Wyoming on public health. Right now, that means figuring out how to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in places that are designed to bring people together from across the country and around the world.

The young employees don’t seem to mind the wait. They talk about how deep the nasal swab will go, and whether they should let boyfriends and family members visit them this summer, considering the pandemic. Like most everyone else, they have individual COVID concerns: a family member who is particularly vulnerable, a time they may have been exposed.

Though they are young and healthy, the workers are aware that they have the potential to be spreaders of COVID-19. Not only are they subject to  exposure via the children of dozens of park employees, they also worry they could introduce the disease to the park if they were to acquire it outside of the workplace.

That’s why Larsen is testing them. The employees are among the first wave of a new surveillance testing program at Yellowstone National Park and in surrounding communities. The voluntary program is designed to create an early warning system for when COVID-19 arrives in the Greater Yellowstone area. The idea is to catch COVID-19 carriers who aren’t yet showing symptoms and quickly work to isolate those carriers in order to prevent a larger outbreak. 

‘NO DOUBT’ COVID COMING 

Yellowstone National Park has not yet documented a positive COVID-19 case in a park or concessionaire employee. Spread of the disease in gateway communities has so far been limited and contained.

But it’s likely only a matter of time until the disease arrives, said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.

“I have no doubt there is going to be a positive COVID-19 case,” Sholly said in an interview with Montana Free Press, pointing out that the park receives more than 4 million visitors in a normal year.

COVID-19 could come to Yellowstone in a number of ways, Desnick said. Tourists could bring it from abroad. Park, concession and gateway employees who travel could bring it back to the community. 

U.S. Public Health Service Officer George Larsen prepares paperwork for COVID-19 tests for employees of the Little People’s Learning Center in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Credit: Johnathan Hettinger / MTFP

And while gateway communities including Gallatin and Park counties are preparing some hotel rooms and support services to help tourists who fall ill self-isolate, most tourists who become sick are likely to simply get in their car and go back home, said Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department.

So rather than focus on visitors, public health officials are focusing surveillance testing on local workers.

“That’s what we’re more likely to be dealing with,” Kelley said.

At the request of neighboring counties’ public health officials, Sholly closed Yellowstone on March 24, but with mounting pressure from gateway communities whose economies rely on visitation, Sholly has implemented a phased re-opening of the park. Yellowstone’s two Wyoming gates opened May 18. Two weeks later, on June 1, the Montana gates re-opened

Keeping Yellowstone closed permanently was never an option, Sholly said.

“I don’t know where the stress of the economic impacts of being shut down starts to override the fear of the virus, but we got there in the past couple weeks,” Sholly said. “People aren’t taking paychecks. Kids aren’t on health insurance. A lot of livelihoods are predicated on tourists coming to this park.”

Sholly said that most park employees, gateway business owners and public health officials he’s spoken with agreed the park should open. The questions were how and when. 

“There is no playbook for re-opening national parks during a pandemic,” Sholly said.

Larsen helped Yellowstone develop a plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Employees at the gates stand behind protective glass, visitor centers are closed, large tour groups are not allowed, the park is day-use only, and masks are provided at certain locations, including gift shops, and encouraged with signage any place people gather.

Yellowstone has hired only about a quarter of its usual seasonal staff, allowing workers to have their own bedrooms, and in most cases private bathrooms, in the park’s staff housing. But in gateway communities, workers from river guides to restaurant employees live in a variety of situations, including tents and with roommates, complicating the possibility of community spread. 

Larsen and Sholly said they are sharing their developing protocols with other national parks around the U.S., where the new testing program could eventually be deployed as well.  

“If we can make it work here with three states, five counties, tens of thousands of opinions, and we can get through it, it can be a great model for people to follow, or a lessons learned, what not to do,” Sholly said.

THREAT VECTORS 

If significant spread happens at Yellowstone, it will be because of asymptomatic carriers and lack of social distancing, Larsen said. To address those prospects, Larsen worked with public health officials in the five counties surrounding Yellowstone to develop a protocol for the program. 

The testing started with park employees on May 28. The first wave of testing also includes residents of Park County, home to two of Yellowstone’s five gates, where much of Yellowstone’s permanent staff lives. Eventually, the program should expand to other counties neighboring Yellowstone.

The idea is to test people — whether park employees or hotel staff or restaurant workers — who interact with the largest number of tourists and so are most likely to be exposed to the virus. Then health officials can isolate positive cases, contact-trace anyone they may have exposed, test those contacts and, ideally, contain the outbreak.

So far, more than 100 park employees have been tested, as have dozens of employees in Gardiner and Cooke City. All tests have so far come back negative, and testing is still being ramped up. 

A sign outside the Mammoth General Store in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, warns visitors about social distancing. Credit: Johnathan Hettinger / MTFP

Some logistics are still being ironed out as well. Should employees be tested every week, or every two weeks? Which businesses will be tested? Part of the uncertainty is due to the frequently changing situation. 

At first, for instance, the program was designed to test a sampling of employees with the most tourist contact in order to give public health officials an estimate of COVID-19 rates in the park and gateway communities. But in the past couple of weeks the number of available tests has increased significantly, allowing the program to expand to more employees and businesses.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is providing the tests for the program. 

Desnick said that in the coming weeks the county will set up a drive-through testing program that’s likely to be implemented on several occasions throughout the summer.

“Two weeks ago, it was like having a gold mine to sit on 100 test kits. Now, we have hundreds more,” Desnick said.

GETTING TESTED 

On the outdoor patio of the Two Bit Saloon in Gardiner, Chuck Tanner can’t wait to get his COVID-19 test. 

“You can stick it up my nose first, Doc. I’m ready to get it over with,” said Tanner, who owns three local restaurants. 

Tanner was among the first business owners in Park County to volunteer for surveillance testing. Front-line workers in gateway communities such as Tanner and his employees are among the most at-risk of exposure as they wait tables, serve drinks and talk with tourists. 

“You can do it yourself,” Desnick told him. 

Desnick then demonstrated the testing protocol: insert the swab in your nose about one centimeter deep and swirl it around for 15 seconds, then switch to the other nostril. Afterward, break the Q-tip-like swab and place it into the vial of solution and you’re done.

“I really don’t have to stick it up all the way to my brain?” Tanner asked.

“It’s not painful,” Desnick said. “There is nothing painful about this.”

After seeing the procedure, a few more of Tanner’s employees decide to join in. The more the merrier, Desnick says. That’s the point.

Any business that has significant interaction with tourists can contact the Park County Health Department to request testing. Currently participating businesses include the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce and Yellowstone River Motel. 

Park County has so far recorded just eight cases of COVID-19, but Tanner said he wants to know if it arrives and puts his employees at risk.

“I’m the guy that has to buy the Christmas present Christmas Eve because I can’t wait to give it, so I just get it over with,” Tanner said.

“You’re smart, because you have an early warning, you’re going to know, you’re going to isolate, and that’s it,” Desnick said.

CONTAINMENT OR SPREAD

COVID-19 is likely coming to the park and its surrounding communities.

“If your measure is Park County, Wyoming, staying at two cases, or eight in Park County Montana,” then you need to recalibrate your expectations, Sholly said.

“It’s not possible when you open a park like this that brings in millions of people a year,” he said.

But Sholly hopes the surveillance testing program will lead to containment, rather than community spread.

At about 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Larsen stood in his office at park headquarters, talking on the phone with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services for the second time that afternoon. Holding his cell to his ear, Larsen leaned against the wall, taking the closest thing to a rest he’d had all day. 

Before long, he had to run to another meeting, phone still to his ear.  

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Just a couple of blocks from Larsen’s office, the parking lot of the general store was full. License plates represented Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Inside, workers encouraged customers to apply hand sanitizer and handed out masks to anyone who wanted one. Most customers took them, but a few didn’t. The check-out line had social-distancing circles on the floor.

Just outside the store, a familiar sign advises visitors to recreate responsibly, with a few new COVID-conscious additions — stay on the trail, wear a mask, cover your cough and keep a safe distance: 100 yards from bears and wolves, 25 yards from bison, elk and all other wildlife, and two yards from other people.

So far, visitation at Yellowstone has been below normal, and Sholly said he’s been satisfied with social distancing efforts taken by guests. It’s up to visitors, not Yellowstone employees, to limit spread among visitors.

“We don’t have enough staffing to keep people away from bison and bears each year, let alone keeping people six feet apart,” Sholly said.


This story is part of continuing Montana Free Press coverage of community responses to COVID-19 supported by the Solutions Journalism Network

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.