Cheyenne/Laramie County Health Department registered nurse Valencia Bautista administers the new COVID-19 vaccine to registered nurse Terry Thayn on Dec. 15, 2020, in Cheyenne. Thayn is the first person in the state to receive the newly approved vaccine. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

Wyoming healthcare providers this week administered the state’s first COVID-19 vaccines to frontline healthcare workers, offering a ray of hope in controlling the pandemic.

“We have an end in sight at this point, which was not true for many months during this pandemic,” State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said in a release announcing the first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which began arriving Monday. “We have hope and a reminder that this situation is for now and not forever.”

Wyoming’s vaccination rollout won’t be a simple task. The vaccination involves a two-dose shot with stringent time- and temperature-sensitive storage

The first shipment to the state included 4,875 doses, and the first doses were administered Tuesday to a handful of medical staff in Laramie County.

Wyoming’s 49-page COVID-19 Vaccination Plan calls for a phased approach to meting out the limited vaccine inventory, with each phase targeting recipients based on their exposure or vulnerability to the virus. First up are frontline healthcare workers and residents of long-term-care facilities. 

As vaccinations rolled out, new infections slowed for a third straight week, with active cases dipping below 2,500 for the first time since Oct. 19.  

The DOH reported 30 COVID-19-related deaths this week as of Friday morning. Last week, the department reported a total of 64 — the most reported in any week since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations also continued to trend downward, with 169 reported on Wednesday. That’s down 17% from a week earlier.

Though numbers have declined, hospitals are still struggling to keep up with COVID-19 patient demand, Wyoming Hospital Association President Eric Boley told the Casper Star-Tribune. “They are still in the heat of the battle against this virus,” he said.

New single-day lab-confirmed cases did not exceed 500 any day this week, a notable downtick from the height of the spike in late November.

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

As of Friday morning, the Department of Health reported 2,289 known active cases in the state — a 43% drop from last week, and 80% down from the high of 11,793 on Nov. 24.  

All told, Wyoming has tallied 35,113 lab-confirmed infections. 

That includes 1,910 new cases in the last week — a 28% decrease from the previous week and a 62% decrease from four weeks ago. The DOH has reported 351 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic’s onset. 

Though state officials issued new health orders Dec. 7 that include a statewide mask mandate, 10-person gathering limit and restrictions on bar and restaurant hours, compliance and enforcement have proven inconsistent, particularly at Wyoming’s watering holes. 

State officials will not grant an exemption request for Natrona County, where the county commission sought exclusion from gathering limits and bar hour restrictions, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. County Health Officer Mark Dowell said as long as the state remains in the White House’s “red zone” for its rates of infection, the DOH won’t approve variances, according to the newspaper. 

When it comes to mask use, a new survey from the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center shows that even before the mask order was issued, mask use in the state was on the rise. 

Just over 75% of Wyoming residents reported always or often wearing masks when visiting indoor public places, an increase from 69% in early November and 61% in early October. Only 6% of Wyoming residents reported rarely wearing masks in such scenarios. 

At the time of the survey, roughly half of Wyoming’s counties had enacted face mask mandates, said Brian Harnisch, senior research scientist in charge of the project at WYSAC. 

“Self-reported mask use in those counties, those that say they always wear a mask in indoor public places, was roughly 20 percentage points higher than those without a mandate,” Harnisch said in a release. 

State Health Officer Harrist noted that though the vaccine represents a huge step forward for the state, it’s only one tool, and she cautioned against falling into complacency. 

“Putting an end to this pandemic will take all our tools. Now we can add vaccines to wearing masks, social distancing and staying home when we are ill,” she said in a press release. “For now and for some months to come, we need all of these strategies as we work to eliminate this virus and to help things get back to normal as soon as possible.”

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Gov. Mark Gordon proclaimed Dec. 16 “COVID-19 Pandemic Heroes Day.” He also designated Dec. 18 as a day to recognize military health care heroes. 

“As we continue this fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to keep those on the front lines at the forefront of our minds,” Gordon said in a YouTube video. “As we approach the holidays, many of our heroes are sacrificing time with their families to serve their communities. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their continued hard work and sacrifice during this pandemic.”

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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