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COVID-19

COVID-19 cases in Wyoming are dropping, but health officials say it could be the 'calm before the storm'

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Coronavirus sample tubes are stored in a refrigerator at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory in Cheyenne Friday, Sept. 4. Coronavirus numbers have fallen in recent weeks in Wyoming, but health officials warn that precautions should still be taken seriously.

New and active COVID-19 cases in Wyoming dipped to their lowest point in nearly a month this week, but health officials say the public should remain vigilant.

It took from the start of the pandemic in March until September for the state to reach 1,000 active coronavirus cases, including probable patients. Afterward, in half that amount of time, the state neared 12,000 active total cases, a high mark it set in mid-November.

That number has begun to turn around in the last 10 days, however. Active total cases dipped below 7,000 this week for the first time since Nov. 8, and hovered just over that benchmark Friday.

Hospitalizations, too, have fallen, though just slightly. The number of people hospitalized for the virus has fluctuated but remained above 200 for the last two weeks. Still, the number fell by 25 from Nov. 30 to Friday, dropping from 247 to 222.

Average new case increases fell below 600 total cases per day for the first time in nearly a month as well. These numbers have trended down since roughly Nov. 25.

But health officials say Thanksgiving may have created a false slump and that the public shouldn’t stop using precaution in public.

“We would caution against reading too much into numbers from a few days testing and results. It’s possible that fewer people were tested over the holidays,” Wyoming Department of Health Spokesperson Kim Deti wrote in an email. “We remain very concerned about our overall status currently with COVID-19 and remain concerned that we may see more surges in the coming days and weeks.”

Officials have publicly worried that Thanksgiving will create an unmanageable surge in the community. It’s unclear exactly how many people traveled through the Casper-Natrona County Airport over the holiday, though airport director Glenn Januska said it was certainly less than last year’s record high numbers.

Still, the Transportation Security Administration reported screening more people for travel nationwide over the holidays than at any previous point during the pandemic.

Casper-Natrona County spokesperson Hailey Bloom said there’s a possibility the dip in numbers signals an improvement, but it’s too early to say.

“We aren’t sure if that is just due to people just coming off the holiday, if things are improving or if it’s the ‘calm before the storm,’” she said via email. “We like others across the nation, fully expect to see some increase in cases related to gathering over the holiday. We are hopeful that people did so safely but we know we will inevitably see some cases as a result.”

The White House Coronavirus Task Force has taken a hard-line stance on Thanksgiving gatherings.

“If you are under 40, you need to assume you became infected during the Thanksgiving period if you gathered beyond your immediate household,” a Nov. 29 report from that task force to Wyoming leaders reads. “If you are over 65 or have significant medical conditions and you gathered outside of your immediate household, you are at a significant risk for serious COVID infection.”

Locally, doctors and health officials asked residents to stay home for Thanksgiving, but it’s unclear how many followed that advice. Still, despite the dip in new infections and active cases, the state is still seeing concerning levels of transmission, according to the task force’s report.

The White House group has put all 23 Wyoming counties in the “red zone” for virus transmission, and warns that vulnerable people should be wary.

“If state and local policies do not reflect the seriousness of the current situation, all public health officials must alert the state population directly. It must be made clear that if you are over 65 or have significant health conditions, you should not enter any indoor public spaces where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk to your health; you should have groceries and medications delivered,” the report reads.

It also states that lowing the high level of transmission “will likely require more intensive restrictions.”

Sixteen counties have now passed their own mask mandates — many of which came in mid or late November. Gov. Mark Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist have not acted on calls from health officials to enact such an order statewide.

Natrona County’s mask order has been extended through Jan. 8.

In a release announcing the extension, the local health department wrote, “Wyoming and Natrona County remain one of the nation’s COVID-19 hot spots, and with recent Thanksgiving celebrations and upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, these amendments were made in an effort to slow the virus’ spread.”

Follow health and education reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @m0rgan_hughes

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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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