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'We're in a mess,' State's largest hospital 30% full with COVID
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'We're in a mess,' State's largest hospital 30% full with COVID

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Medical assistant Savannah Dela Vega removes her face mask in the staff room at the respiratory clinic of Wyoming Medical Center in October in Casper. Nearly 30% of patients at Wyoming’s largest hospital are being treated for COVID-19. The majority of them are under 65 years old.

Nearly 30% of patients at Wyoming’s largest hospital are being treated for COVID-19. The majority of them are under 65 years old.

With so much of the hospital’s resources devoted to one illness, a spokesperson said they could eventually struggle to treat any emergency patients — for the virus or otherwise.

“It is rare at any time for a quarter of patients to be hospitalized for a single diagnosis. And, many of those hospitalizations could have been prevented had the patients chosen to receive the vaccine,” Wyoming Medical Center spokesperson Mandy Cepeda said via email.

She added, “there may come a time when that space is not available for patients with other emergent health care needs.”

Dr. Mark Dowell, county health officer and the hospital’s infectious disease expert, said the surge will strain the entire community, from the school system to the workforce for local businesses. Three out of every 10 virus tests conducted in the county in the past week have come back positive, he added.

“We’re in a mess,” he said. “The virus, to me, seems more aggressive,” and is 10 times more contagious than the initial strain.

Aug.30 -- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Vice Dean Joshua Sharfstein discusses Covid-19 in children, how schools deal with virus outbreaks, and vaccine production with the use of booster shots in the U.S. The Bloomberg School of Public Health is supported by Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

There were 42 virus patients Thursday morning at Wyoming Medical Center, he added.

“This kind of serious problem in the county has far-reaching effects,” Dowell said. “It’s going to eat up resources, it’s going to burn out health care professionals emotionally and physically, and I am sure we will be getting to the point where we have to turn away transfer requests because we don’t have the room.”

The warning echoes those made about hospital capacity this time last year.

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While vaccinations that protect against the novel coronavirus have been available to all Wyoming adults since late March, residents have not sought the shots en masse. More than 60% of the state is unvaccinated — a population that includes children under 12 who must wait to receive a vaccine until child-specific clinical trials conclude.

At the same time, a more contagious strain of the virus — dubbed the delta variant — is spreading across the U.S., driving a surge as severe as what Wyoming saw last fall.

Roughly 90% of Casper’s virus patients are unvaccinated, Cepeda said.

Dowell said the vaccinated patients the hospital is treating have underlying health conditions that likely inhibited the immune response the vaccine evokes in the majority of the public — meaning they didn’t get the shot’s full effects.

He said fully vaccinated individuals shouldn’t be worried about contracting life-threatening illness, though he added it’s still somewhat unclear if even the fully vaccinated can develop neurological symptoms from contracting mild virus cases.

Dowell is not considering implementing a local mask requirement, but said people can still opt to wear face coverings — he still wears his into local businesses.

“It helps keep you from spreading the virus if you don’t know you had it,” he added. “It’s not a bad thing to do.”

Another indicator that vaccines are helping keep people out of the hospital is that the proportion of older residents being hospitalized with the virus has dropped.

Those 65 years and older are the most-vaccinated in Wyoming, at about 63%. Between the start of the pandemic and the end of June, that age group made up more than 51% of Wyoming Medical Center virus patients.

In the last two months, the figure has fallen to about 45%, according to data shared by Cepeda. Meanwhile, the proportion of those 45 to 64 years old grew by 10 percentage points — from roughly 26% of patients prior to July, to just over 36% of patients since July 1.

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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