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.
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.
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.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.