EVANSTON — Five of six metrics relied upon to assess Wyoming’s COVID-19 status are in the red zone. As of Friday, Nov. 6, Wyoming’s statewide COVID-19 dashboard listed the number of new cases, percent of all tests with a positive result in the previous two weeks, total COVID-19 hospital admissions, total hospital bed availability and total ICU bed availability as concerning. The only metric remaining stable was that of percent of cases attributed to community spread.
A press release from Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s office states, “Wyoming’s healthcare system is becoming increasingly stressed by the rising number of COVID-19 cases and subsequent hospitalizations that are occurring.” On Friday morning, Gordon’s office said the state had more than 5,500 active cases and 147 reported hospitalizations. As of Sunday afternoon, the Wyoming Information Sharing Platform (WISP) reported more than 6,800 active cases. In addition, 25 more fatalities have been reported in the state since Oct. 29, bringing the total number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 to 114.
One of those new deaths was an older Uinta County man who died last week. He had been hospitalized both in Wyoming and out of state. He reportedly had health conditions putting him at higher risk of serious illness related to COVID-19. That additional fatality brings Uinta County to a total of four.
In response to the growing crisis, three Wyoming counties — Teton, Laramie and Albany — and the Wind River Reservation now require all persons to wear cloth face coverings at retail or commercial businesses, when obtaining health care and when using public transit. All business employees are also required to wear face masks when interacting with the public in any fashion. Gordon and members of the State Building Commission have similarly adopted such orders for all state buildings in counties with face mask requirements.
In neighboring Utah, the explosion in cases and extraordinary pressure on hospitals resulted in Gov. Gary Herbert announcing new emergency orders on Sunday night. The entire state of Utah is now under public mask mandates. Some Utah schools have temporarily closed for in-person instruction due to positive cases but most remain open; however, the new emergency orders include the immediate cessation of all extracurricular activities with the exception of the high school football playoffs. Participating athletes must be tested within 72 hours of play and each participant is allowed only two spectators at games. Utah colleges and universities have been ordered to start testing all students on a weekly basis, to be implemented as soon as possible but no later than Jan. 1, 2021.
The dramatic increase in confirmed cases in Wyoming has made contact tracing increasingly difficult, especially in counties like Laramie and Albany, which both have approximately 1,000 active cases listed on the WISP. The Wyoming Department of Health has begun implementing changes in protocols and in some counties close contacts of confirmed positive cases will likely no longer receive phone calls from public health staff. Instead, the state is increasingly relying on individuals with confirmed infection to notify close contacts themselves and advise those contacts of the need to quarantine.
“To make the most of our available resources, we will focus now on following up in a timely manner with residents who have tested positive. Close contacts may also receive calls at times from public health representatives, but only in certain priority situations and settings,” said Wyoming Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist. “Because not everyone who is identified as a close contact should expect a call from a public health representative for now, we have worked to offer easy-to-understand information to help people know what to expect and what they should do.”
Documents about testing positive, what to do if exposed to COVID-19, isolation and quarantine can be found on the WDH website at https://health.wyo.gov/publichealth/infectious-disease-epidemiology-unit/disease/novel-coronavirus/.
In Uinta County, however, Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said her office is still utilizing contact tracing and phone calls to individuals who need to be quarantined due to exposure. Proffit said the hope is that her small staff will continue to be able to keep up with the workload of doing the contact tracing and issuing quarantine orders. During a weekly COVID-19 update on Friday, Nov. 6, Proffit said Wyoming is one of a few states still trying to do contact tracing; in many others the dramatically escalating numbers have made such tracing all but impossible.
During the update, Proffit said Uinta County healthcare providers had conducted more tests than ever in the previous week — 706 — and 4.82% of those tests were positive. The rolling 14-day average of percent of tests conducted returning as positive was 7.1%.
As Uinta County, Wyoming and national health officials continue to stress the importance of testing, the state’s free saliva-based testing program has been expanded to include a workplace testing component. Employers have an option of acquiring tests for employees to use either through online telehealth visits with a healthcare provider to monitor test administration or through training workplace staff to self-administer the tests without the need for a telehealth visit.
Wyoming employers wishing to offer free testing for their employees can enroll at https://vaulthealth.formstack.com/forms/wy. Wyoming residents who would like to request free at-home testing kits can visit https://www.vaulthealth.com/covid. Although the website lists a $150 testing fee, once a valid Wyoming address is entered that fee is waived.
Wyoming is also reportedly developing a program to provide additional support to hospitals, in addition to the $100 million already provided by the State Loan and Investment Board. Two new funds to help Wyoming businesses have also been developed. The Agriculture Fund has $90 million reserved to support the state’s farmers and ranchers who have experienced business interruptions due to COVID-19; awards from the fund can be up to $250,000. The Endurance Fund will have at least $24 million set aside to help Wyoming businesses and nonprofits cover pandemic-related losses and expenses; awards from this fund can also be up to $250,000. More information on both funds can be found at wyobizrelief.org. The application period is open now and closes at 8 p.m. on Nov. 18.
“Our collective response to these deteriorating conditions is critically important if we expect Wyoming’s government, our businesses, and thus our economy to function,” Gordon said. “Wyoming’s schools, daycares, businesses and government offices are all potentially facing challenges. We each can do our part to control the virus by taking the actions we know will work. We need to take care of our family, friends, neighbors and coworkers.”
As of Monday, Nov. 9, the WISP listed 103 active cases in Uinta County, although Proffit said that number does not reflect people recently recovered. She said the actual number of active cases Monday morning was approximately 75.