This graph shows the daily number of active coronavirus cases in Wyoming since July 13, 2020. (Wyoming News Exchange)

A spate of Wyoming counties sought and received mask mandates this week as COVID-19 continued its record-breaking spread in the state. Gov. Mark Gordon deployed resources to overwhelmed hospitals and tightened some restrictions on gatherings, but did not issue a mask order. 

Meanwhile, new infections, hospitalizations and deaths continued to mount, ranking Wyoming’s pandemic metrics among the worst in a nation ravaged by the virus. The Wyoming Department of Health announced a record 53 deaths — more than twice the number it announced last week. COVID-19-related hospitalizations also hit a new peak on Wednesday, at 210.

Health care providers continued to sound alarms as the crush of patients severely strains their staffing resources. 

“We are inundated with patients needing to be seen at our clinics – somedays seeing over 100 patients a day just for COVID19 concerns – on top of caring for our regularly scheduled patients,” read a press release from the Lander Medical Clinic. “Because of this, as much as 10% of our staff is either out sick or exposed and we are short staffed. In addition, the hospital is full.”

The situation became critical enough to prompt a spate of counties to seek mask mandates. Just over half of all Wyoming counties, plus the Wind River Indian Reservation, now have mask orders in place, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. These include nine counties whose orders were approved Tuesday: Natrona, Sweetwater, Sheridan, Park, Lincoln, Carbon, Goshen, Sublette and Hot Springs. Teton, Laramie and Albany previously had orders approved. Others are pending.

This map shows the number of active cases in each county as of Nov. 19, 2020. (Wyoming News Exchange)

Gordon on Thursday announced he is deploying outside resources to buttress the state’s strained health care workers. These include the Wyoming National Guard, contracted traveling medical staff and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

“Help is on the way,” Gordon said in a release. 

Teams of doctors and nurses from the DHHS have been assigned to two of the state’s hardest-hit hospitals: Campbell County Memorial Hospital in Gillette and Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. 

Guard members will also deploy to CRMC, which had 52 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 complications as of Thursday. In addition, as many as 50 traveling medical staff are expected to be assigned to hospitals throughout the state by the end of the week, according to the governor’s office. 

Gordon late on Thursday announced new state restrictions on gatherings. The orders mark the first time state officials tightened health restrictions since the spring. 

The orders limit indoor and outdoor gatherings to 25 people without restrictions, allow for larger gatherings with health precautions in place and impose seating and capacity requirements on businesses like restaurants and gyms. They exempt faith-based services. 

The orders do not entail a mask mandate — something Gordon said last Friday the state was contemplating, and something neighboring states like Utah and North Dakota have enacted as cases explode in Mountain West and Plains states. Nearly all of Wyoming’s county health officers last week sent a joint letter to Gordon asking him to institute an order. 

The Wyoming Republican Party’s central committee, meanwhile, recently called on the governor to rescind his declaration of a state of emergency, and with it the legal underpinning for public-health restrictions. Gordon has not publicly responded. 

Virus metrics continued to accelerate for an 11th straight week as Wyoming’s surge stretched into a third month. Though the growth of new active cases slowed, the number of deaths announced by the DOH spiked sharply. More than 30% of the state’s 176 total deaths were announced this week. 

All told, Wyoming has now tallied 22,489 lab-confirmed infections. 

That includes 5,047 new cases in the last week — the largest weekly growth so far. New single-day infections continued to clock in in the triple digits or higher, with 1,162 lab-confirmed cases announced Tuesday, 739 Thursday and 703 Wednesday. 

By Friday morning, active cases — the number of people officials believe are fighting infections but haven’t recovered — reached 11,089, a 26% increase from last week. 

Widespread Infections continued to disrupt life across the state. A public health clinic in Gillette postponed its drive-thru flu clinic after about half its employees contracted COVID-19. The city of Laramie closed many of its buildings to the public. Wyoming’s chief justice suspended jury trials until further notice. The pandemic even cancelled the University of Wyoming’s upcoming football game against Utah State. 

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In a widely distributed op-ed, two prominent Wyoming business lobbyists urged state residents to take precautions in order to avoid further state restrictions. 

“We had anticipated five months ago the likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19. We were wrong. This isn’t a wave, it’s a tsunami,” wrote Wyoming State Liquor Association Executive Director Mike Moser and Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association Executive Director Chris Brown. “And that tsunami threatens to engulf many of those businesses that have managed to survive thus far as well as the well-being, and lives, of our fellow Wyomingites.”

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, Forbes magazine has deemed Wyoming the fourth most dangerous state to travel to. On Thursday, the CDC advised Americans against traveling for the holiday due to pandemic concerns.

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. From reading the commentary I can see some balance is needed here. Let’s review what occurred from the middle of August to the present time. How did we get to where wea are now?

    UW began testing to reopen in Mid August as did schools in surrounding states. UW had formulated an elaborate and ineffective reopening plan, as did nearly every other college in the U.S. These plans were virtually identical. I wrote to the Trustees about their plan in May and August. I wrote commentary about it here in August.

    There were three problems: 1) A unrealistic reliance on testing using procedures with false result rates largely unknown at the time. 2) Relying on assumptions about the effectiveness of all sorts of interventions including masks. 3) Relying on unwarranted assumptions about the behavior of young people.

    Testing hoardes of people, whether ill or not, each week will produce some false positive results. These lead to wasted effort to investigate them and isolation of people needlessly. There will also be false negatives which result in infectious peopple still mingling in the population. When I wrote about this previously I was attacked almost immediately by someone from UW for making fact free claims. But my facts were from Rutgers University who developed the tests in use, and from the FDA who had granted emergency authorization. Period. The interested persons can return to those discussions.

    Even Vault Health, who supplied many of the tests in use, now admit on their website, if one digs deeply enough, that these false rates are 1%. They could be higher, because it is easy to misuse the at home tests. The Governor has offered these tests to the state as a whole. I am not saying they are ineffective — I am saying they are easily misused and misinterpreted.

    Interventions, particularly masks, are not capable of preventing spread. However, there is a well-known tendency of people to underestimate risks hugely when they believe falsely that they are in control of a situation. Thus, firm belief in masks allowed people to engage with others in large crowds — this is how young people behave by nature. They are gregarious and mis-estimate risks.

    The above factors resulted in an epidemic that grew rapidly in Albany County starting September 1. Over the next six weeks the rate of new cases grew by by more than 500% over any comparable period previously, and 67% of these cases were directly connected to UW. Even with the strict interventions of the reopening plan in place.

    From UW this spread to the rest of the region. An analysis of data from Montana, the Dakotas, and even Colorado, show the problems began in towns with colleges. Students went home occasionally even though they’d been asked not too. I overheard students talking about it. Students also found holes in the testing system that allowed them to slip through, even if they were showing symptoms.

    What we are seeing is the failure of a complex system not adequately formulated for robustness in the presence of unknowns. Observations, and other reasonable considerations, seem to show that demanding stronger mandates will not solve the problem. Even with criminal penalties attached.

    1. You repeat your obsession with testing’s 1% error rate as if it is the source of a problem. It’s not. Nor has the problem exclusively been caused by poor policy decisions at universities or irresponsible students.

      You seem to be looking for someone to blame. I’ll help you find them.

      Masks clearly and undeniably prevent at least some transmission. They’re not perfect, but it’s the best we have right now. The steep rise in laboratory-confirmed infections all over the state is substantially caused people like yourself who dismiss the usefulness of “interventions” like masks. People like yourself who spread misleading information are the cause of much irresponsible behavior.

      Your description of COVID in Wyoming a few weeks ago as being of “low prevalence” was wrong. A 1% error in testing results is not relevant in the current circumstances. Your assertion that masks are incapable of preventing spread is obviously wrong. UW’s policies may be partly responsible, but blaming students is just scapegoating to avoid your own culpability.

      Had everyone in Wyoming except students been taking common sense measures of prevention, the spread would not have got far beyond Laramie. Clearly the irresponsible behavior in Wyoming is not limited to students.

      Stronger mandates are what happens when public officials, seeing full hospitals and a potential disaster looming, are desperate to slow a pandemic while irresponsible citizens of all ages disregard voluntary common sense measures. Ultimately people like yourself are responsible for frantic mandates. If you want to find someone to blame, look in the mirror.

  2. I have written and called three times to implore the governor tp institute a state mask wear mandate. Our county and city officials will not act. This is a health issue, not a partisan issue. We rely on wyofile to keep us up to date. Thanks.

  3. I was born in Wyoming 64 years ago and many times I have questioned my decision to stay based on the political climate. Now, I am questioning it because of the lack of respect that the people of Wyoming are showing for each other. I do not want the government to control my life. I have a copy of the constitution hanging on my wall as well as a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I was sure that the people of Wyoming would come together and fight off this pandemic. I was wrong.!!!

    I have always thought that the people of Wyoming were the best of the best. Kind, friendly and concerned for their fellow man.
    Apparently I was wrong. Wearing of a mask is not taking freedom from us. It is allowing us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    I started wearing a masks in March of 2020.

    Since then 6 people I know have contracted Covid 19. 4 were hospitalized and 2 died.
    3 of the people were in the same household and gave it to each other

    Wake up people of Wyoming. Wash your hands, wear a mask and keep social distance.

    Don’t wait until people you know die before you start being kind to you fellow Wyomingites

    Thanks

    i

    1. I’ve always wondered if the same selfish people, who choose not to wear a mask, are also going to start complaining about No Shirts, No Shoes, No service signs as well..

      Let’s not forget the hank Williams concert in Jackson that sold out in 2 minutes. The ignorance in our State is embarrassing at this point…..

    2. Sadly I have to agree. I’ve lost a lot of respect for my home state. Irrational political paranoia seems to have overtaken common sense. Useless belligerence seems to be the preferred defense against a virus. Respect for others is predicated on their party affiliation. Rather than deal with fiscal reality, many people cling to fantasies of mineral revenue that will never return. Alternatives are rejected out of hand for no other reason than they’re “liberal” or “foreign.”

      I don’t know what it’s going to take for the state to break out of this vicious ignorant spiral. Probably a lot more hardship and death unfortunately. Best of luck to you all.

  4. The need for masks is evident. I am a healthcare provider; the Governor stops making the decision to get COVID out of our hands. Make spaces safe. Stop being partisan and be our advocate.
    Signed-An older RN stuck at home and frightened, saddened, and now angry by your lack of response.

    Sincerely,
    Rebecca. L. White

  5. the spike in cases will mean NOTHING to the selfish and ignorant who refuse to wear a mask. We’re going to be dealing with an overload of cases for many months to come.

    1. My question. Am I wearing a mask for my protection? If so then WHY are people who wear a are still getting sick. If I am not sick and have not been sick WHY must I wear a mask.

      1. You could wear a mask even if you are not sick and have not been sick because you could be a carrier of the virus and spread it around unknowingly (while you may not have symptoms). Masks HELP but are not 100%. Distance is best. Be safe out there

      2. The mask is nothing more than a seat belt. It can not prevent you from getting covid. But, as with a seat belt, it gives you a better chance of not getting it from or giving it to others unknowingly.

        If you will not do it for yourself, try doing it for others. You can disagree with science, but it is selfish to not wear one. It doesn’t matter what you feel the degree of effectiveness masks actually have. Any percentage of effectiveness is helpful.