CHEYENNE — As Wyoming’s number of active COVID-19 cases has continued to rise to record levels over the past week, Laramie County has not been exempt from that trend.
Instead, with 268 active cases as of Tuesday afternoon, Laramie County has the second-highest number of active cases in the state, trailing only its neighbor Albany County, which has 278 ongoing cases.
Less than a month ago, the Cheyenne area was bucking the statewide trend of rising case numbers. But over the past two weeks, the total number of active cases has risen by nearly 250% – from 77 active cases on Sept. 27 to 268 on Tuesday.
In the last week alone, an estimated 700 people in Laramie County have been quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19, Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department Executive Director Kathy Emmons said Monday.
“It’s no longer just isolated to Cheyenne – it’s throughout the whole county,” Emmons said. “It’s just very concerning. We’re at a point now that this is what keeps me up at night.”
The most concerning aspect of the rising case numbers, Emmons said, has been “the obvious decrease in the use of masks in the community.”
“We know that (wearing a mask) is one of the things that really makes a difference,” Emmons said. “When you know what will help stop it or decrease it, and people just decide they don’t want to do it, that’s really disappointing. … There’s a definite cause and effect.”
The rise has so overwhelmed Laramie County health officials that the Wyoming National Guard, which was activated by Gov. Mark Gordon last week to assist with contact tracing statewide, started assisting the county health department team on Monday, Emmons said.
“It’s just been at an intensity level we’ve never seen … so I did reach out, and we gave the Guard at least 20 cases to go do quarantines on,” Emmons said.
Recently, Gordon has reiterated that he is not interested in imposing additional restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though he has repeatedly encouraged social distancing and wearing masks.
State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist told the WTE on Tuesday that with virtually everything open for business in Wyoming, mask use and social distancing only become more important to ensure things stay that way.
“I think honestly (a factor) is the fatigue of the COVID-19 pandemic and measures, in general,” Harrist said. “I totally understand, and I have the same feeling that we’re all sort of ready for this to be over and to be able to get back to normal life. Unfortunately, we’re just not there.”
State officials continue to look at ways to more effectively encourage Wyomingites to take the recommended prevention steps, Harrist said.
“That is something that we’re looking at – how can we better emphasize the importance of these recommendations? How can we better support people as they are following these recommendations, which can be difficult to follow?” Harrist said. “I think that that is something that we need to look closely at, and we’re doing so.”
Wyoming’s three public health orders currently allow for outdoor gatherings of no more than 50% of a venue’s capacity, with a maximum of 1,000 people. Indoor gatherings, meanwhile, are limited to 250 people, if social distancing and sanitization measures are followed.
Harrist said an updated set of orders would be released before the expiration of the three existing orders Thursday, though she declined to reveal whether those renewed orders will look any different.
“We understand that these orders are burdensome,” Harrist said. “We always base them on data and the measures we think are absolutely necessary to protect public health, so the orders that will come out (Wednesday) will, as they have been since March, be a reflection of that.”
The uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Wyoming was also a point of concern for Harrist and other health officials. After hovering around 20 virus-induced hospitalizations in late September, Wyoming has seen that number more than double in recent weeks, reaching a record high of 56 hospitalizations last Friday. As of Tuesday, that number sat at 46 – still far above all pre-October figures.
At Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, 10 patients were getting treatment Tuesday for the coronavirus, “which represents the highest number we’ve had since COVID started,” CRMC CEO Tim Thornell said Tuesday afternoon. “That certainly gives reason for us to be concerned and alarmed about the current rate of transmission of COVID.”
Officials at CRMC weren’t too worried about the hospital’s capacity to handle the spike, though. Of their 10 coronavirus patients, only two have needed care in one of the hospital’s 15 intensive care units, and none are currently on a ventilator.
“We have physical capacity for patients with COVID,” Thornell said. “Probably one of our chief concerns is keeping our staff healthy and well to take care of everyone so that we have enough staff to manage all the patients that we may get. We have 15 beds for ICU, but that includes non-COVID patients who need ICU care, as well.”
Along with the two coronavirus patients, there are currently seven non-COVID patients using those ICU beds, leaving six of the hospital’s 15 units open. Should the need arise, Thornell added the hospital has the ability to handle some COVID patients on ventilators outside of ICUs.
Though none of CRMC’s patients are currently on ventilators, the hospital stays for some COVID-19 patients can be lengthy, Thornell said.
“Our average length of stay for any patient coming into the hospital for any reason is a little over four days, and with COVID, we’re certainly finding patients are remaining in the hospital a lot longer,” Thornell said. “We’ve had several patients here who have been COVID positive, in our ICU, on and off of the ventilator, and have been here for weeks, which is just very atypical for any type of hospital stay to be here for that long of a duration.”
Capacity wasn’t much of a concern for officials at Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, either. Nicole Rooney, Ivinson’s chief nursing officer, said Tuesday that the hospital’s capacity is in a “very good” situation.
“We have a total of 22 rooms in our med-surg unit, and we have seven rooms within our ICU – four that are dedicated ICU rooms and three that we consider critical care rooms,” said Rooney. “Right now, I have two patients in our ICU, and I had 12 this morning on our med-surg unit, so I definitely have the capacity at the moment.”
If cases spike further in Albany County, Ivinson CEO Doug Faus said the hospital has the ability to use its entire second floor for COVID-19 patients, though he added “we’re obviously nowhere near needing to do any of those drastic measures.”
While Albany County’s high case numbers have largely been attributed to students at the University of Wyoming, that hasn’t translated into many college kids needing hospital care, according to Rooney.
“Our hospitalizations have definitely gone up over the last couple of weeks, but our population of the patients that were hospitalized really hasn’t had a drastic change from what we saw earlier in the year, so we aren’t seeing a large number of younger people hospitalized for this,” said Rooney.
It remains to be seen whether the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Wyoming will return to pre-October levels anytime soon. Though Wyoming counties can request local variations to the statewide public health orders, Emmons said there isn’t much interest at the county or state level to implement a public mask mandate, which 33 other states currently have in place.
“We like to make sure that people are using their individual will to do the right thing, so I don’t think that there’s much of a chance of having a mandatory mask requirement signed off on at any level,” Emmons said.
Emmons said Wyoming’s number of COVID-19 hospitalizations will remain a major statistic to keep an eye on with regards to changed health orders.
“I heard today that North Dakota has 20 beds available in hospitals in the whole state,” Emmons said. “If we get to that point, I would anticipate that something will have to happen.”
In the meantime, her team at the county health department plans to keep encouraging the most important prevention steps for residents to take.
“Think about the people around you that you care about, and do whatever you can to protect them,” Emmons said. “We know that that is simply wearing masks, social distancing and don’t go to work when you’re sick.”