White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, right, speaks during a press conference at the Wind River Hotel and Casino on Oct. 28, 2020. She is joined by Gov. Mark Gordon and Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Update: The Department of Health reported 431 new lab-confirmed cases Friday afternoon, a new single-day record. -ED.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator visited Wyoming this week as the state cemented its status as one of the nation’s hotspots for COVID-19 spread. 

In remarks to the press, Dr. Deborah Birx emphasized the importance of mask use, widespread testing and limited gatherings in controlling the virus. 

“This is a call to action,” Birx said, “a real call to action for us to change our behaviors over the next few weeks to really change the course of this pandemic.”

Wyoming’s virus numbers, meanwhile, continued to climb at staggering rates as the surge broke records for an eighth week. Single-day lab-confirmed cases grew exponentially, the state announced 19 deaths — more deaths than in any single week since the pandemic began — hospitalizations surpassed 100 for the first time and active cases grew to a new high of more than 4,000.

The state has not reimposed or tightened any restrictions since the spike began.

“We see cases rising in county after county … we have a third, almost, of your counties in what we call the red zone,” Birx said. “We see the slope of your increasing cases reaching a critical level, but we know how to stop it.”

Along with wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands, “We’re really calling on everyone in Wyoming … to really pay attention to what you are doing in the household,” she said.

Public health officials believe recent spikes in Northern Plains and Mountain West states were triggered by people moving their activities indoors with the onset of cold weather, Birx said. 

Asymptomatic carriers pose perhaps the trickiest challenge to containing the spread, she said. Because of that, widespread testing to identify those individuals is paramount. Birx also touted mask use and social distancing, and, “most critically,” exercising caution when gathering inside with others outside of one’s household — even in small groups.

“If you and everyone there doesn’t have their mask on,” and an asymptomatic individual is present, she said, “The virus is spreading.” 

Birx spoke favorably about mask mandates, due to the extra nudges they provide: “It’s not that you need government enforcement, it’s that we need constant reminders when we’re in public to wear our masks,” she said. She also lauded the state, University of Wyoming and tribal entities’ testing initiatives.

Gov. Mark Gordon has not issued a statewide mask mandate, saying he believes such decisions are best applied by local governments. Still, he and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist have encouraged Wyoming residents to wear them in public since the pandemic began. 

“I think it’s very clear how the Department of Health feels about face coverings and how important they are in preventing transmission, slowing transmission of this virus,” Harrist said during Wednesday’s press event. But, she added, “There is not one single answer to this pandemic. It has to be a multi-pronged approach, and it does have to be based on what is most appropriate for that location.” 

All told, Wyoming’s has seen 10,589 lab-confirmed infections by Friday morning. That includes 1,751 new cases in the last week — or 16% of the total since March, an unprecedented weekly growth. New single-day infections continued to break records — with numbers like 387 Monday, 381 last Friday and 301 Thursday. 

By Friday morning, active cases — the number of people officials believe are fighting infections but haven’t yet recovered — hit 4,184, a 48% increase from last week.

The DOH reported 19 COVID-19-related deaths — some new and some added from previous weeks — bringing the death toll to 87. These included five residents of a single Big Horn County long-term care facility.

The number of statewide hospitalizations reported by the DOH hit a new record of 109 Thursday, an 85% increase from two weeks ago. 

Dr. J.J. Bleicher, interim CEO at Wyoming Medical Center, told the Casper Star-Tribune his hospital is anticipating an “exponential” growth in COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks. 

The facility has increased its maximum capacity to 170 by doubling patients in single rooms, he told the Tribune, and is bringing traveling nurses in from other communities.

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In Laramie County, where cases have ballooned in recent weeks, officials expect a mask mandate would be finalized by the end of the week, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports

The order is similar to one approved earlier this summer in Teton County, the paper reports. If approved, it would require residents to wear masks inside any retail or commercial business, when obtaining health care and when using public transit. The only other place in the state with a mask mandate is the Wind River Indian Reservation. 

Laramie County had 624 active cases by Friday morning, a 56% growth over last week. That’s second in the state only to Albany County, which had 684. 

During Wednesday’s press conference with Birx, Gordon warned that the virus’s onslaught had only begun in Wyoming. “… it’s a very serious progression, it’s going to take several weeks to work its way through,” he said, “and there will be more deaths as a result of it.”

Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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  1. https://www.wsj.com/articles/doctors-begin-to-crack-covids-mysterious-long-term-effects-11604252961?st=1yszfpwssgr4l4i&reflink=article_imessage_share
    I’ve yet to see Wyoming leaders or press really reckon with/consider the long term effects of Covid-19 illness on people. The deaths/recoveries binary misses an extremely wildly varied level of lived experiences. The state health department needs to stop reporting recoveries as they do -it is well established that a percentage of people have persistent and ongoing symptoms. “Personal responsibility” won’t get us out of it. Mask up, support each other, we’re in for a long ride here.

  2. Money from sports events etc trumps common sense recommendations from professionals like wearing a mask, social distancing and hand washing. Will those responsible for chasing the dollars be held accountable for contributing to the death of some of those who attending various events?

    In Lewistown, MT seven members of the girls HS volleyball team are in quarantine and upcoming games have been canceled.

  3. The sign said “thank you for not smoking”
    Then it said “no smoking allowed”
    We all know it’s for our health,
    We understand and accept that,
    So why can’t we agree wearing masks should not be the same?
    And it would only be for a few months.
    So much to gain at so little inconvenience and cost.
    Jim Hicks
    Buffalo

  4. By many measures, Albany County is faring the worst in the face of COVID-19. And now U.W. has received permission from the state to contravene state guidance on large outdoor gatherings when a reported 7,000 football fans file in for tonight’s game. Unbelievable.

    1. Yep. How many from out of town and not part of the surveillance testing and contact tracing programs being conducted by UW? How many of them will hit the bars, restaurants, stores, shops, and parties in town, all coinciding with the inevitable crowds of Halloween partiers this weekend? How many will bring COVID with them and spread it further in our community? And how many will get it here and then take it home with them to spread into their own communities? Students are being sent home for thanksgiving, not to return to campus afterward to avoid this exact scenario, but for some reason the university admin is incapable of utilizing the same logic for sporting events?
      I’m appalled and [hopefully not literally] sickened by the University’s decision to host sporting events like this.