John Treese receives regular phone calls through the “Call A Senior” program while living alone at his home in Cody. The program was launched by the Cody Senior Center to combat the isolation and seclusion faced by seniors during the coronavirus pandemic. (Lauren Modler/ Cody Enterprise/Wyoming News Exchange)

An estimated 65%-75% of Wyoming lawmakers will have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot by the start of the hybrid in-person and online legislative session in the Capitol on Monday, according to the Legislative Services Office. 

Gov. Mark Gordon has not yet received a vaccination, according to his spokesman Michael Pearlman; Gordon and members of the executive branch will participate remotely.

As lawmakers prepare to meet in a session that has been redesigned due to pandemic concerns, the three-month improvement in Wyoming’s COVID-19 metrics continued this week with hospitalizations dropping below 30. The state’s vaccination rate, meanwhile, is among the highest in the country.

Those trends prompted Gordon and the Department of Health to ease some health restrictions. Starting Monday, officials will lift a health order related to personal-care services like salons, and allow larger groups to  gather. The statewide mask mandate will remain in effect.

This graphic from the Wyoming Department of Health tracks COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the state. (DOH)

“If we continue on our current trajectory, I expect us to be able to continue to remove orders as we safely return to a new normal,” Gordon said in a Thursday press release. 

Among the scores of bills that will be on the legislative docket, lawmakers will consider a handful related directly to the pandemic’s impacts on the state. 

One such bill, Senate File 30 – Pandemic review task force, was advanced Tuesday by the Senate Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions committee. 

The bill would create a task force to study the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including public health orders, the state health officer and local public health officers’ authorities, schools’ responses and more. 

The measure is the “result of a lot of those conversations and frustrations surrounding the way the pandemic has been responded to and understanding how we should move forward in the future,” Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) said. 

The task force would consist of a Department of Health representative, someone from the governor’s office, a K-12 education representative, someone from the business community, two county commissioner representatives, an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone or Northern Arapaho tribe, two healthcare practitioners, three state representatives and three state senators. The governor would appoint all but the legislative seats. 

During the Tuesday meeting, lawmakers and others expressed preference for that approach over other bills that propose curtailing the authority of health officers and giving lawmakers more power over public health measures. 

“We really believe that the task force is the best way to approach this,” said Jim Willox, a Converse County Commissioner and president of the Wyoming County Commissioner Association. “We’ll be monitoring the other bills, but believe this is the right way to move forward.”

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) said a task force is important now because “I guarantee we’ll have another pandemic.” 

“I hate these task forces with a passion,” Sen. Odgen Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said. Despite that, he said, “I think this is a critical one. It’s one that absolutely has to happen … we need to learn some lessons on what we did right and what we did wrong and what we can refine in the future.” 

Across the state, meanwhile, Wyoming’s vaccination rollout continued at a brisk pace. Many communities moved further down their 1b priority group lists, making more categories of people, such as those with certain medical conditions, eligible for vaccination. 

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As of Thursday, more than 82,000 Wyoming residents had received a first dose, while nearly 42,000 had gotten their second. The state has received 95,225 first doses and 55,980 second doses. 

A vaccination is still not a ticket to resuming life as it was pre-pandemic, according to DOH spokesperson Kim Deti. Much is still unknown, for example, about the likelihood a vaccinated person can transmit the virus to others.  

“Of course, we would expect people to follow any current public health orders in their area regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated,” Deti wrote in an email. “We do recommend people keep wearing masks and following physical distancing practices for the time being.” 

The state’s vaccine rollout has paralleled a steady decline of infections, which continued again this week.

Known active cases dipped to 652 by Friday morning, down 9% from last week. By Monday, there were fewer than 100 active cases in every county. Just 20 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 by Thursday, down 38% from last week and the lowest that number has been since Sept. 29. The Department of Health reported nine COVID-19 related deaths — the first time that weekly count has been fewer than 10 in months — bringing the state’s total to 671. 

All told, Wyoming has tallied 45,925 lab-confirmed infections. That includes 454 new cases this week.

According to a Feb. 25 weekly report issued by the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, four Wyoming counties remain in the “red” zone for infections. They are Teton, Big Horn, Park and Platte. Officials in Teton County, however, moved the area into the “yellow” low-risk level Thursday following weeks of improvements. 

Four counties have now received variances to state health orders based on local conditions. That includes Johnson County, which is exempt from the mask mandate, the Buffalo Bulletin reports.

This story has been updated to correct the name of Big Horn County. – ED. 

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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