UPDATE: The Wyoming Department of Health announced an additional 22 COVID-19-related deaths Friday afternoon for a weekly total of 64. The story has been updated to reflect that.
As active COVID-19 cases dipped below 5,000 for the first time since Nov. 1, state officials this week issued new health orders, including a statewide mask mandate, 10-person gathering limit and 10 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants.
While the recent infection decrease is good news, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said, Wyoming is aiming for a more sustained slowdown in COVID-19 spread with the orders. The state’s cases climbed drastically for three months beginning in September, leading to a significant uptick in deaths and overwhelmed hospitals.
“Our state and those surrounding us are facing a hospital capacity crisis that now compels us to take additional action,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a press release. “All through the fall, Wyoming has seen a rise in serious cases of COVID to a point where every county is facing critical and dangerous levels of spread of the virus. Too many people have died.”
With the announcement, Wyoming becomes the 38th state to require people to wear face coverings in certain public settings.
The state is offering relief funding for restaurants and bars impacted by the restrictions. Gordon also announced he’s using $10 million in CARES Act funding to alleviate medical staff shortages in long-term-care facilities.
The news came as Wyoming’s spike in infections continued to decline for a second week from its high point in late November. Still, the Department of Health announced 64 COVID-19 related deaths this week — the most reported in one week since the pandemic began.
When asked about the orders coming after new infections finally began to drop, Harrist on Monday said the DOH’s support for mask-wearing “has been clear for quite some time,” and that the state has required masks in settings such as schools and personal-care businesses.
“We are always trying to balance the impact of our actions,” Harrist said. “And it has become clear at this point that the previous steps have not been sufficient.”
Counties can apply for exemptions, but they will have to meet criteria proving infections have slowed over a prolonged period. A DOH document illustrating transmission indicators between Nov. 21 and Dec. 4 shows most Wyoming counties in the red zone of “high transmission levels”.
Wyoming’s congressional delegation supported the orders.
“We’ve lost 280 people in Wyoming and more than 280,000 Americans to this virus so far,” U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Liz Cheney said in a joint statement. “It’s a real and significant threat. It’s not a cure all, but wearing a mask and practicing social distancing goes a long way in stopping the spread.”
For a second consecutive week, new single-day lab-confirmed cases did not exceed 1,000 any day this week. In fact, new daily cases were below 500 on all days but two. Active cases also decreased again. As of Friday morning, the Department of Health reported 4,033 known active cases in the state — a 40% drop from last week, and 65% down from the high of 11,793 on Nov. 24.
The DOH has reported 321 COVID-19-related deaths. That includes 128 in November, the most of any month so far.
Many of those have been related to long-term-care facilities. Wyoming now ranks third in the country for its rate of nursing-home-related deaths, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.
As of Thursday, statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations had also dropped to 207 from a high of 247 Nov. 30.
All told, Wyoming has tallied 33,203 lab-confirmed infections.
That includes 2,685 new cases in the last week — a slight decrease from the previous week and a much smaller weekly tally than the largest of 5,047 only three weeks ago.
On the eve of a much-awaited decision to approve national vaccine distribution, a Wyoming Department of Health employee resigned after making public remarks disparaging a vaccine. Igor Shepherd resigned following reports that he called the forthcoming vaccine a biological weapon at an event in Colorado, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.
The University of Wyoming, meanwhile, will likely finish the school year as it began: with a mixture of in-person and virtual education. A draft plan calls for 10 weeks of in-person instruction, a three-day spring break and five weeks of fully online classes to conclude the term.
The plan is subject to changes brought by the pandemic.
“It is uncertain when the current statewide surge in COVID-19 cases will subside and what will be the impact of the holiday season,” UW President Ed Seidel said in a release. “…We will remain prepared to implement an emergency shift to fully remote instruction and student programming with limited in-person operations or to take other actions if warranted by major changes in conditions.”