CHEYENNE – With the number of active COVID-19 cases in Wyoming about five times higher than it was a month ago, Gov. Mark Gordon said Friday he’s considering every option regarding new restrictions.
Gordon, who has repeatedly stated his preference to giving counties the ultimate call on public health measures, said Friday the state will be extending its current public health orders by one week, rather than the usual two-week extension.
“All things are on the table,” Gordon said during a news conference. "We want to make sure that we address this issue before we completely lose all ability to respond to health crises."
Since the start of November, 40 virus-related deaths have been confirmed in Wyoming, many of which have been in long-term care facilities. Gordon said those populations are being put at a greater risk “because we are being knuckleheads about this.”
“Ask yourself – do you feel better today about what's going on in this state than you felt maybe in June or July or August when we were one of the lowest states for infection rates?” Gordon said, frustration in his voice growing more and more evident as he spoke. "We were one of three states that could have a state fair ... ask yourself – do you think we can do that now without running a risk on everything? Our capacities are overwhelmed."
In Wyoming, COVID-19 hospitalizations were at an all-time high of 192 on Thursday. A month ago, that number was 54. Gordon, who noted the entire region is struggling with capacity, recently authorized stimulus funds to be used to try to draw out-of-state medical personnel to help the state’s hospitals.
Gordon held a virtual meeting with about 100 Wyoming businesses earlier this week. On Friday, he said the surge in cases has put a stress on the statewide economy, stating, “we've had more businesses around the state that are closed because of sick workers than by any of our health orders.”
"I've asked a number of businesses – do you feel like you're gonna make it through this next year? – and I've got to tell you, people, there isn’t a heck of a lot of hope out there. So, again, we've got to get our head in the game," said Gordon, adding "we're running around like chickens with their heads cut off."
As of Thursday, Wyoming’s two-week positivity rate, or the percentage of COVID-19 tests that came back positive, was 11.4% – far above any levels seen before November. Health officials widely consider a 5% positivity rate as a concerning threshold.
Mike Ceballos, director of the Wyoming Department of Health, said the increase in asymptomatic positive cases has further complicated the state’s ability to do contact tracing.
"It is literally everywhere,” Ceballos said of the virus. "It’s not just in the places we traditionally were looking at, where we had lots of folks – for instance, in our bars. That was an initial place where we thought, but it is becoming so pervasive that there's not a place that we're not seeing (the virus)."
The news briefing Friday came after public health officers from 21 counties in the state wrote Gordon a letter urging him to issue a statewide mask mandate. The governor, who met virtually with the health officers Thursday morning, cited projections from the meeting that Wyoming is on pace to see around 3,000 new cases per day, about 2% of which would likely be hospitalized.
"Imagine what that's going to do to our hospital system,” Gordon said. “We've relied on personal responsibility throughout this pandemic, so ask yourself, has that really been working? Have people been taking the responsibility we asked them to?"
"Deaths and hospitalizations are increasing, so my problem is if I can't rely on you, we're going to have to do something else."
Outbreak grows at local nursing home
In line with the increase in cases statewide, the number of long-term care facilities dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks has also risen, with 21 of them reporting ongoing situations this week.
In Laramie County, Life Care Center of Cheyenne has been grappling with one of the worst outbreaks of any facility statewide. This week, the nursing home was reporting 90 cases among its residents – 11 of which resulted in deaths – and 49 cases among staff, according to statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health.
The 90 cases among Life Care residents is the most that has been reported in any Wyoming long-term care facility since the pandemic began, and its death toll trails only Shepherd of the Valley Rehabilitation and Wellness in Casper, which has confirmed 15 virus-related deaths among its residents.
Two other Laramie County nursing homes – Cheyenne Healthcare Center and Granite Rehabilitation and Wellness – are also dealing with smaller, ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks.
Cheyenne Healthcare Center was reporting two positive cases among its residents and five among its staff, while Granite Rehabilitation and Wellness, which already had a few cases earlier this year, was reporting two positive cases among its residents and 10 among its staff.
However, while many virus-related deaths have been in nursing home residents, Gordon emphasized Friday that COVID-19 can be dangerous to anyone, regardless of age.
“There's a 29-year-old I know who’s in the hospital now, fighting for her life, so it's not just older people,” Gordon said.
Health officials wary of holiday season
With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, Gordon and local health officials have expressed anxiety over what the coming weeks could mean for the state’s COVID-19 case numbers.
During his news briefing Friday, the governor said it’s important for people to take health protocols seriously during the Thanksgiving holiday, adding "we also want to make sure that we have a Merry Christmas.”
“At this point, with these trends, there's a lot of people that may not be there for Christmas,” Gordon said. "So it's time again, Wyoming, that we wake up. It's not forever. There is a vaccine on the horizon."
The warning was reiterated by officials from the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, which sent out a release outlining best practices Thursday. Laramie County Public Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman said there was an increase in local cases after Halloween due to social gatherings, and he hoped to avoid a similar uptick after Thanksgiving.
"It is imperative for the community to focus on keeping their family, friends and neighbors safe with alternative Thanksgiving plans,” Hartman said in a statement.
A few days ago, updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized that the safest option to celebrate Thanksgiving is to do so only with members of the same household. If individuals decide to celebrate outside their household, the agency advises them to take extra precautions, such as wearing masks and keeping at least 6 feet of distance from others.
A new modeling tool created by Georgia Tech professors illustrates the risk of large gatherings in Laramie County. For example, a gathering of 25 county residents would pose a 70% chance that somebody in attendance has COVID-19, according to the latest modeling Friday.
“Like many other 2020 holidays, Thanksgiving will look different for most people this year,” said Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department. "It is important to remember that COVID-19 will not be in our lives forever, and being responsible with your family’s health is essential for future celebrations.”
The warnings have not been limited to officials from Wyoming, as governors nationwide have urged their residents to avoid nonessential interstate travel in the coming days.
Their pleadings come as COVID-19 spikes have been reported throughout the United States. On Thursday, new cases in the U.S. topped 150,000 in a day for the first time, according to the New York Times. That same day, a national record was also set for new COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 67,096.