Wyo Officials: Keeping schools open a priority amid COVID-19 surge

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow (File photo/Wyoming Department of Education).

The goal this year is to keep Wyoming schools open with learning taking place in classrooms, a feat that will take a collaborative effort to accomplish as COVID-19 numbers surge, state officials said Monday.

“There is no question most students benefit from in-person learning. We made keeping schools open a priority last year and are doing so again,” said Dr. Alexia Harrist, state health officer and epidemiologist with the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH).

Unlike last year, however, students, families, and school staff have access to free, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccines that are readily available across Wyoming that are authorized for anyone 12 and older, Harrist said, adding that there are no plans to implement a COVID-19 vaccination mandate in Wyoming.

The department will continue promoting voluntary vaccinations among eligible students, school staff, family members, and across Wyoming communities, per Harrist, which can still help schools stay open with students and teachers in the classroom.

“Wyoming proved over and over during the last school year that in-person instruction and extra-curricular activities can occur safely,” added Jillian Balow, state superintendent of public instruction. “I am so proud of the example we have set-it has been truly exceptional.”

Personal responsibility will be essential moving into the 2021-2022 school year to achieve similar results, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said, adding that while there will also not be a mask mandate this year, vaccinations and mask usage remain valuable tools in minimizing the effects of COVID-19 in Wyoming’s communities and economy.

Individuals who are fully vaccinated and are identified as close contacts do not need to quarantine, Harrist said. Similarly, quarantine is not necessary if both the infected person and the close contact were wearing masks at the time of exposure.

“These are difficult times and hard on everyone. It is important that parents know what to expect as we begin the school year,” Gordon said in a statement. “Everyone cares deeply and wants to ensure that the year is a success. I ask that we show respect and kindness to one another as we navigate some really tough decisions. We should always remember to treat others as we would like to be treated.”

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Second surge

The highly contagious Delta variant remains the dominant strain throughout the state, the culprit behind a recent spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, per Harrist.

As of Aug. 24, there have been a total of 59,590 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming, 12,479 probable cases, and 835 deaths, per WDH.

In Campbell County, there are currently 297 active cases, which includes both lab-confirmed and probable cases. To date, there have been 5,383 lab-confirmed cases, 5,038 recoveries, and 65 deaths, according to Campbell County Public Health.

On Monday, Aug. 23, the seven-bed intensive care unit (ICU) at Campbell County Health (CCH) was full and three ICU patients had tested positive for COVID-19, per the organization’s Facebook page, which adds that their 22-bed Medical Surgical Unit had 15 patients, ten of whom were COVID-19 positive.

The emergency department is currently working to expand its COVID-19 waiting area due to the influx of patients with COVID-19 symptoms, per the post.

Additionally, while the organization may have open beds, they do not have sufficient personnel to open those beds to care for patients who are ill, injured, or who have COVID-19, according to the post.

CCH Leadership gathered Friday to discuss the COVID-19 situation, a potential second surge, and what it means for Campbell County’s lone hospital (Facebook/Campbell County Health)

The staffing shortage is not just happening locally, the organization continued, efforts to recruit traveling medical staff has revealed that CCH is but a single health system in a long list of health systems in need of staff.

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“We’re all tired of COVID-19, but the pandemic is not over. In fact, it’s surging in our community again,” another CCH post read.

Of the 1,176 laboratory tests given in August, around 28 percent were COVID-19 positive, the post continued, showing a marked increase of more than 14 percent in all of July and nearly 18 percent more than all of June.

Breakthrough

Despite the spike in cases, however, the WDH maintains that available COVID-19 vaccines, including the recently FDA-approved Pfizer vaccine, continue to offer solid protection from infection for Wyoming residents, including against the Delta variant, Harrist said in a Aug. 17 statement.

“However, no vaccine can prevent all infections and that’s why we see a small percentage of what we call ‘breakthrough’ cases,” Harrist said in another statement earlier this month. “The overwhelming majority of ‘breakthrough’ cases that are identified do not involve serious illness. In other words, vaccines certainly help you from getting COVID-19 in the first place, but if you do get it, you are far less likely to get severely ill.”

The breakthrough infection rate for fully vaccinated residents is less than 3 percent, per WDH.

“The Delta variant must be taken seriously because it spreads much more easily between people than the COVID-19 we’ve become familiar with,” Harrist said Aug. 4. “There are also concerns from experts that as the Delta variant spreads the number of breakthrough cases will increase.

The Delta variant is essentially like COVID-19 upping its game against us, Harrist continued, which means Wyoming needs to fight back a little harder for now.