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Laramie players cheer after the Plainsmen defeated Kelly Walsh to win the 2020 Wyoming State High School Class 4A Volleyball Championship on Nov. 7 at the Casper Events Center.


Health
alert top story
New data shows lag in COVID-19 deaths being reported in Wyoming
  • Updated

When the Wyoming Department of Health announces that more COVID-19 patients in the state have died from the disease, it is often announcing deaths that actually occurred weeks if not months before.

The lag in reporting is a result of the time it can take for death certificates to be filed, department spokeswoman Kim Deti said. The department does not count a patient as a coronavirus death unless COVID-19 has been listed on their death certificate as the cause of death or a contributing factor.

And the time it takes for those certificates to be filed has always varied, even before the pandemic, Deti said. The Wyoming Department of Health then must review that information before reporting the deaths to the public.

Now, though, the department is offering comprehensive data on when each of those patients’ deaths occurred, providing an even more accurate look at the spike in deaths that has accompanied this fall’s surge in virus infections and hospitalizations.

Putting these new weekly figures alongside the number of deaths the state had reported each week suggests, grimly, that we have only begun to learn about the deaths that have occurred over the past two weeks in Wyoming.

Take, for example, the week of Nov. 1. Thirty-five Wyomingites died of the coronavirus during that week, according to the state’s latest numbers. But during that time, just 27 deaths were reported. By the end of that week, 114 deaths had been reported since the start of the pandemic, but at least 167 total deaths had already occurred, we now know.

Similarly, the number of deaths the week before (29) substantially outstripped the number of deaths that were reported during the same time (19). That trend dates all the way back to the week of Sept. 27, roughly two weeks after Wyoming’s ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases began.

Over the last two weeks, however, the opposite has been true. Of the 176 deaths the state has made public since the start of the pandemic, nine have been attributed to last week and none have been attributed to this week. Meanwhile, 30 and 32 deaths have been reported during those weeks, respectively — the highest numbers of any weeks during the pandemic thus far.

In other words, these record-breaking death totals in November have largely been a result of the Wyoming Department of Health catching up on COVID-19 deaths that occurred in October. People that are currently dying of the virus are not yet reflected in numbers that nevertheless put Wyoming fourth in the nation in coronavirus deaths per capita over the past week, according to the New York Times.

Of the Wyoming COVID-19 deaths that we know about, 72 happened in October (37 deaths were reported that month). Forty-two have been attributed to the first three weeks of November. That number is only one behind the total for the first three weeks of October — and, remember, the Wyoming Department of Health has not yet announced a single death that happened this week.

Of course, there is no way to know for sure whether there are just as many unreported deaths out there now as there were in October — that is to say, whether the recent trend will continue. One would hope that we have not seen deaths attributed to this week not because of the wait for death certificates but because they simply have not happened.

But, troublingly, during the past few weeks — that gap in time when deaths could have happened without us yet knowing — the trends that previously foreshadowed a rise in deaths have only gotten worse. Wyoming continues to set new records for active COVID-19 cases and hospitalized patients on a near-daily basis.

In October, a total of 6,230 coronavirus cases were confirmed in Wyoming. In the last two weeks alone, 9,302 new cases have been confirmed.

At its worst in October, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state reached 120. As of Friday, 219 virus patients were hospitalized.

At some point, there will come a week when the number of deaths being reported exceeds the number of deaths currently occurring, and it will be an accurate representation. Fewer coronavirus patients will have died during this hypothetical week than in the weeks before, and a lag in data availability won’t be to blame.

But for that to happen, it would seem these other trends will need to end first.

WeekDeaths since start of pandemicDeaths reported at the time
Sept. 65042
Sept. 135249
Sept. 205350
Sept. 276053
Oct. 46954
Oct. 118457
Oct. 1810368
Oct. 2513287
Nov. 1167114
Nov. 8176144
Nov. 15176176



Photos: Wyoming Public Health Laboratory

Photos: A visit to the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory

COVID-19 deaths in Wyoming by week

Week Deaths since start of pandemic Deaths reported at the time

Sept. 6 50 42

Sept. 13 52 49

Sept. 20 53 50

Sept. 27 60 53

Oct. 4 69 54

Oct. 11 84 57

Oct. 18 103 68

Oct. 25 132 87

Nov. 1 167 114

Nov. 8 176 144

Nov. 15 176 176

Brandon Foster

307-266-0574, brandon.foster@trib.com

16d98852-2b68-11eb-b9fa-00163ec2aa77


Govt-and-politics
top story
When will the Wyoming Legislature convene next year? No one's sure yet.
  • Updated

Just days after Gov. Mark Gordon urged lawmakers to meet “sooner, rather than later” to address the state’s budget crisis, the Wyoming Legislature is still contemplating whether to even meet at all this winter amid a surge in COVID-19 cases that shows no sign of subsiding.

Since earlier this fall, the question of what the 2021 Legislative Session could look like has gone unanswered as lawmakers continue to debate the specifics behind the scenes. Some lawmakers have floated the idea of gaveling in for a day in January, as is constitutionally required, and then reconvening in the spring. Legislative staffers have expressed a reluctance to attend the upcoming session in person, further complicating planning. Meanwhile, issues like whether lawmakers could be forced to wear masks have also attracted some controversy.

On Tuesday, members of the legislative leadership’s Management Council will meet via Zoom to debate all of these concerns as well as whether lawmakers should hold a full session this winter, wait until springtime, or even reduce the number of days the body meets. In one scenario, the Legislature would go from meeting the full two months beginning in January — when new lawmakers are sworn-in — to an abbreviated, 22-day session in May.

That final option, a Thursday memo from Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht read, may be the most likely, given the stresses on staff, the logistical concerns of accommodating lobbyists and members of the public, and the susceptibility of lawmakers themselves to the virus.

“Over the last several months, legislative staff have worked with leadership to identify solutions to safely hold an in-person session in January 2021,” Obrecht’s memo read. “Unfortunately, none of the options we explored ultimately proved viable. Many of the plans did not have the requisite safeguards in place to adequately protect legislators, staff or the public from the spread of COVID-19 during an in-person session.

“In-person session plans that did provide the necessary level of protection from COVID19 exposure were rejected because they presented insurmountable challenges such as access to the process for lobbyists and the public or were unenforceable in a legislative setting.”

Then there is the concern for the safety of lawmakers themselves. According to the memo, the Wyoming Legislature currently has 45 members who are over sixty years of age, thirteen of whom are over seventy-years of age, leaving them at a greater risk of dying from the virus – no small statement given several lawmakers have contracted or been exposed to the virus in the last several months. One lawmaker, Gillette Republican Rep. Roy Edwards, died after contracting the virus. At least two more have been infected.

Lame duck session?

That’s not to say lawmakers cannot get anything done in the period between the one day in January when the the Legislature would convene to the May start date proposed by LSO.

According to the memo, House and Senate committees would still be able to meet on an interim basis throughout the winter and spring to refine legislation and save time later in the spring, while the Joint Appropriations Committee — which approves the budget — could hold hearings on the document and potentially produce a compromise bill in time for when the Legislature comes back together.

In doing this, however, the new schedule would complicate the timing of implementing the more than $300 million in estimated budget cuts that remain to reach a break-even point on the state budget. With a brief “mini” session in January, there will likely be little time to fully vet the JAC’s recommendations, particularly given the unknowns about what the state’s revenue projections will look like in the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group’s January report. Though there are options to pass a budget quickly — JAC members did meet for a month prior to last year’s budget session in an effort to streamline the process — that effort ultimately yielded no efficiencies, with budget negotiations continuing well into the last day of the 2020 session.

That’s not to say it’s a desperate situation, however: With hundreds of millions in budget cuts already implemented — and most of the remaining deficit in the state’s K-12 budget — Gordon’s policy advisor, Renny Mackay, told the Star-Tribune that it is not necessary a deal gets completed prior to the start of a potential May session.

Transparency concerns

It is still unclear what public access to a session could look like.

On Thursday night, the Equality State Policy Center hosted a forum via Zoom on what concerns lawmakers, lobbyists and the press had about engaging in the process remotely, particularly given the state’s spotty access to broadband and the often breakneck pace of the legislative process.

Wyoming League of Women Voters lobbyist Marguerite Herman expressed concern about some facets of the all-digital meetings utilized in the 2020 special session, but she did say that it was an improvement over the processes in past years, where members of the public often had to drive hours to attend meetings.

The logistics of whether people will be able to engage, however, remains an open question.

“The ability to plan is challenging by the ever-changing conditions that we’re facing,” Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, told the panel.

Photos: Special session convenes in Cheyenne and through video conference

National
AP
Companies seek emergency vaccine use
  • Updated

Pfizer formally asked U.S. regulators Friday to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, starting the clock on a process that could bring limited first shots as early as next month and eventually an end to the pandemic — but not until after a long, hard winter.

The action comes days after Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech announced that its vaccine appears 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease in a large, ongoing study.

The companies said that protection plus a good safety record means the vaccine should qualify for emergency use authorization, something the Food and Drug Administration can grant before the final testing is fully complete. In addition to the FDA submission, they have already started “rolling” applications in Europe and the U.K. and intend to submit similar information soon.

With the coronavirus surging around the U.S. and the world, the pressure is on for regulators to make a speedy decision.

“Help is on the way,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert said on the eve of Pfizer’s announcement, adding that it’s too early to abandon masks and other protective measures. “We need to actually double down on the public health measures as we’re waiting for that help to come.”

Meanwhile, the surging coronavirus is taking an increasingly dire toll across the U.S. just as a vaccine appears close at hand, with the country now averaging over 1,300 COVID-19 deaths per day — the highest level since the calamitous spring in and around New York City.

The overall U.S. death toll has reached about 254,000, by far the most in the world. Confirmed infections have eclipsed more than 11.8 million, after the biggest one-day gain on record Thursday — almost 188,000. And the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 hit another all-time high at more than 80,000.

With health experts deeply afraid Thanksgiving travel and holiday gatherings next week will fuel the spread of the virus, many states and cities are imposing near-lockdowns or other restrictions. California ordered a 10 p.m.-to 5-a.m. curfew starting Saturday, covering 94% of the state’s 40 million residents.

The Texas border county of El Paso, where more than 300 people have died from COVID-19 since October, is advertising jobs for morgue workers capable of lifting bodies weighing 175 pounds more. Officials are offering more than $27 an hour for work described as not only physically arduous but “emotionally taxing as well.”

The county had already begun paying jail inmates $2 an hour to help move corpses and has ordered at least 10 refrigerated trucks as morgues run out of room.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are at their highest level since late May, when the Northeast was emerging from the first wave of the crisis. They peaked at about 2,200 a day in late April, when New York City was the epicenter and bodies were being loaded onto refrigerated trucks by forklift.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled out another shutdown and singled out El Paso county leaders for not enforcing restrictions already in place. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, likened the county’s chief administrator to a “tyrant” after Paxton won an appeals court ruling blocking local leaders from shutting down gyms and other nonessential businesses.

Friday’s emergency use filing sets off a chain of events as the FDA and its independent advisers debate if the shots are ready. If so, still another government group will have to decide how the initial limited supplies are rationed out to anxiously awaiting Americans.

How much vaccine is available and when is a moving target, but initial supplies will be scarce and rationed. Globally, Pfizer has estimated it could have 50 million doses available by year’s end.

About 25 million may become available for U.S. use in December, 30 million in January and 35 million more in February and March, according to information presented to the National Academy of Medicine this week. Recipients will need two doses, three weeks apart. The U.S. government has a contract to buy millions of Pfizer-BioNTech doses, as well as other candidates than pan out, and has promised shots will be free.

Not far behind is competitor Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine. Its early data suggests the shots are as strong as Pfizer’s, and that company expects to also seek emergency authorization within weeks.

The public’s first chance to see how strong the evidence really is will come Dec. 10 at a public meeting of the FDA’s scientific advisers.

So far, what’s known is based only on statements from Pfizer and BioNTech. Of 170 infections detected to date, only eight were among people who’d received the actual vaccine and the rest had gotten a dummy shot. On the safety side, the companies cite results from 38,000 study participants who’ve been tracked for two months after their second dose. That’s a milestone FDA set because historically, vaccine side effects don’t crop up later than that.

“We’ll drill down on these data,” said FDA adviser Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.