CASPER — Wyoming has all the tools it needs to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, health officials say. But residents here aren’t taking advantage of those resources.
As a more contagious and potentially more dangerous variant of the virus spreads in the state, officials worry not enough Wyomingites will be protected.
“The vaccine is really the key,” State Health Officer and epidemiologist Dr. Alexia Harrist said, but “it’s not where we want to be right now in the public health realm.”
COVID-19 vaccines have been available to most of the public since April, but Wyoming lags behind all but three states for our rates of fully vaccinated residents and the proportion who’ve received at least one vaccine dose.
Just 31% of the state is fully inoculated against the virus. And we’re slowing down.
The proportion of residents who’ve received a first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna shot in the last two weeks has moved just half a percent. In that same time-frame, about 800 of the single-dose Janssen shots were administered.
Put another way, the number of first shots given over the last two weeks accounts for just 2% of the total number of first doses (including the Janssen shot) given statewide since the vaccines arrived here in December.
“I’m pretty frustrated with where we’re at,” Wyoming Medical Center Chief of Staff Dr. Andy Dunn said, particularly in light of the Delta variant’s presence here. “I’m very, very worried about what’s to come.”
Indeed, despite the reprieve from the fall and winter surge, Wyoming’s virus numbers are in worse shape than most of the country. The average number of new cases recorded in the state is about 90, the highest it’s been since late February.
Just four states have a higher rate of transmission per 100,000 residents.
Our virus death rate per 100,000 residents is the highest in the nation, and Wyoming is among leaders for hospitalizations, too.
Six mutations dubbed “variants of concern” have been identified in Wyoming, including the drastically more transmissible Alpha and Delta variants (B.1.1.7 and B.1.617.2, respectively.)
The Alpha variant, first identified in the U.K., has been spreading through Wyoming since January and has accounted for at least 637 infections here, according to genetic sequencing conducted by the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory.
Research shows that variant is about 40% more contagious than the original strain that emerged from China.
But now, an even more contagious variant is in Wyoming.
The Delta variant is considered 60% more contagious than the Alpha variant and may also cause more severe illness. While its foothold in Wyoming is so far small, the World Health Organization estimates it will soon be the dominant virus strain globally.
As of Tuesday, at least 42 cases in Laramie County were tied to that mutation, and the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center is currently treating 30 of the state’s 50 hospitalized virus patients.
“What’s happening in Cheyenne right now is a reminder (the pandemic) is not over,” Harrist said.
Health care leaders in the state are preparing to see similar increases. Harrist said the health department is coordinating with the Wyoming Hospital Association to ensure additional staff can be tapped if hospitalizations dramatically rise. Dunn, too, said Wyoming Medical Center has an updated surge plan that anticipates needing more beds and more staff if cases increase.
“If we’re not thinking about the worst, you can’t plan for it,” he said.
Across the world, countries and communities are reimposing mitigation strategies like mask mandates and social distancing as the Delta variant continues its spread.
South Africa last week set a 14- day ban on gatherings and indoor dining and Israel has reimposed its indoor mask requirement despite a high proportion of vaccinated residents after several of those residents contracted COVID-19 from the mutated virus, according to reports from national news outlets.
The World Health Organization last month also urged fully vaccinated people to again wear face masks in public settings in light of that variant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not made a similar recommendation.
Harrist said it’s unlikely Wyoming will see another public health mandate, adding the state will follow the CDC’s guidance over the World Health Organization’s.
“They have to make recommendations for the entire world,” Harrist explained. “So it shouldn’t be a surprise if sometimes there are different recommendations.”
She added that the vaccines approved in the U.S. have all proven effective at preventing deaths and hospitalizations, even against the new mutated strains.
She also said face masks might still be recommended in some settings and for some people. Vaccinated residents may still be able to infect their unvaccinated peers, so Harrist recommends masking when around high-risk populations.
Dunn echoed that advice, adding that Wyoming is far from being done with COVID-19.
“If we were in Vermont or Connecticut, I’d say the pandemic is not a big deal here at the moment,” he said. “But I’m very, very worried about what’s to come (for Wyoming).”
With the state’s low vaccination rates, he said it’s more likely the virus will continue to mutate, meaning it could get even better at infecting people. Dunn urged residents to remain vigilant and to continue masking and social distancing in crowded settings.
“We haven’t earned that right yet to take it easy,” he said.