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More Wyomingites hospitalized with COVID-19 Thursday than at any point during the pandemic

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Registered nurse Lindsey LeVeck puts on her personal protective equipment in the hallway of the ICU at Wyoming Medical Center on May 8, 2020 in Casper. COVID is again surging in Wyoming.

Wyoming hospitals treated 249 COVID-19 patients on Thursday — the most at any point during the pandemic.

At the height of last year’s surge in November, 247 people were hospitalized with the virus, while active cases neared 12,000 — roughly 2% of the state.

This time, the surge is being driven almost entirely by unvaccinated residents, who make up 98% of all new cases recorded since May 1. Those developing severe illness are often sicker this time around, doctors have said, as a more aggressive virus strain takes its toll.

Active cases today are roughly 3,500 and falling from where they were a month ago, but hospitalizations and deaths are trending in the opposite direction.

At the start of this month, 210 people were hospitalized with the virus statewide. On Sept. 1, it was 198.

Unlike the state’s first hospitalization spike, which peaked at the end of last November, this one has kept hospitals at constant high alert.

Last fall and winter, hospitalizations stayed above 200 for 23 days. This year, they have hovered around 200 since early September, occasionally dipping to 170 or 180 or spiking to 230 and beyond.

“We don’t have a complete explanation for the current hospitalization levels as compared to case counts. Possible factors include more serious illness being associated with Delta variant and more people avoiding testing,” health department spokesperson Kim Deti said via email.

“One reason avoiding testing is unfortunate is there are treatments available to people who test positive that can potentially help keep them from becoming more seriously ill,” she added.

Wyoming’s hospitals are relatively small. The state’s two largest facilities are licensed to care for just over 200 beds. Wyoming Medical Center in Casper has been recording some of the highest patient numbers that physicians can ever remember seeing. At points, fewer than 10 inpatient beds have been available at the facility.

“We are at record high hospitalizations at Wyoming Medical Center,” Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell told the county board of health Thursday. “It’s like a war zone.”

Casper’s hospital has been treating nearly 30% of the state’s virus patients for at least the last month. The facility, which touts itself as a regional transfer center, has been denying more transfer requests, but officials have declined to offer specific data on the number of requests being approved and denied.

“The ICU is overrun and there are a lot of patients being admitted,” Dowell added, saying he doesn’t anticipate that changing in the near future.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, joined Cheddar to discuss the CDC panel's endorsement of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 booster shots. "I think for the high-risk individuals, it makes a lot of sense," he said.

Outside of Casper, five Wyoming hospitals have at some point gone into crisis care during this latest surge, meaning they did not have adequate resources to care for all patients.

Virus-related deaths are also increasing. The state publicized details on 69 deaths this week — the largest weekly update of 2021. The majority of those deaths occurred in October.

All the while, Wyoming remains the most vaccine-hesitant state in the nation. It’s now also the most reluctant to vaccinate our children, according to a new poll from the Census Bureau released Wednesday.

The state has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the U.S., behind only West Virginia. Forty-three percent of Wyoming residents are fully vaccinated. Of residents 12 to 17 years old, 35% are fully inoculated.

Gov. Mark Gordon has said no further interventions will come from his office to boost vaccination or curtail the virus’ spread, while his state health officer and federal officials are encouraging everyone to mask up in areas with moderate-to-high virus transmission.

Sixteen Wyoming counties saw high transmission levels over the last 14 days based on state metrics.

Gordon has said he encourages residents to get vaccinated but that the decision is “intensely personal” and he is not planning any interventions to increase uptake.

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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