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Mask orders now approved in 12 Wyoming counties, including Natrona; two more requests under review
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Mask orders now approved in 12 Wyoming counties, including Natrona; two more requests under review

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Mask Mandate Meeting

Ann Robinson attends a public meeting earlier this month in Casper, where the Natrona County County Commissioners decided to enact a mask mandate for county-owned buildings. Robinson and her husband Marvin contracted the novel coronavirus earlier this year.

Local mask mandates have been approved in 12 Wyoming counties, with requests from Washakie and Converse counties still being reviewed.

Nine counties had their requests approved Tuesday: Natrona, Sweetwater, Sheridan, Park, Lincoln, Carbon, Goshen, Sublette and Hot Springs counties.

Teton, Laramie and Albany counties already have mask orders in place.

If requests from Washakie and Converse counties are approved, 14 Wyoming counties and the Wind River Reservation will have instituted local mask orders. As is, more than two-thirds of Wyomingites now live in a county that requires face masks.

It is unclear when the orders will go into effect. Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell said via text the county’s order could take effect as early as Wednesday but that it had not yet been formally decided.

He said the decision to request an order here was done after consulting with other health officers in the state, and that “many county health officers submitted a request for this with the best of intentions.”

“We all felt it was time,” he wrote. “We obviously are very concerned about the health of the population of Wyoming.”

Health officers in all of the counties that have passed or requested mask mandates were among the 21 who recently signed a letter calling on the state to enact a face mask mandate for all of Wyoming. That letter, dated Nov. 12, acknowledged local authority to pass community measures but added, “We feel that a statewide mandate sends a more powerful and effective message in a more timely manner.”

Gov. Mark Gordon in a press briefing Friday said he is considering a statewide face mask requirement, but gave no time frame for when a decision would be reached.

Support for mask orders in Wyoming has gained steam amid a surge in cases that has swamped Wyoming hospitals and led to a record number of deaths attributed to COVID-19. More than 200 people were being treated for COVID-19 in Wyoming hospitals Tuesday, and 68 deaths have been reported in November, far surpassing the 37 deaths reported in October — a record at the time.

Right now, many U.S. hospitals look like this. Understaffed medical teams struggling to handle soaring hospitalizations."We've heard there are some hospitals that have no ICU beds available as of today," Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said.As some hospitals in Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa and Salt Lake City run out of ICU beds, health officials say they are in critical need of more staff."As volume exceeds our capacity to take care of patients, we need more nurses to help our nurses out. We've hired 190 travelers to help our facilities take care of patients," Dr. Katie Thomas, the associate medical director at Intermountain Medical Center, said.Doctors and nurses who are putting their own health on the line as COVID cases surge. "Right now our top priority and concern is our staff," says Cara Welch, director of communications for the Colorado Hospital Association.As hospitals become overwhelmed, many are facing the grim reality of turning patients away."There may be instances where people who have needs for emergency medical care won't have a place to go in time. So, that's the real concern of an overwhelmed health care system," Westergaard said.And with months until projected peaks, it's on track to get much worse before it gets any better. "In contrast with the previous two surges we've seen with COVID, one in April and the one in the summer, this one is truly nationwide. It's every single part of the country," Dr. Mark McClellan, a former FDA commissioner, said. "We have nine months worth of data. There's a lot that's unknown. And of course, the initial, and still the overwhelming focus is on severe illness, you know, how do you keep people alive," Dr. Nir Goldstein, a pulmonologist with the National Jewish Hospital, said.

COVID-19 cases have been surging in the state since mid-September, growing exponentially over the last weeks. Nearly 11,000 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases were still active Tuesday, or almost 2% of the state’s population. A month ago, there were 2,200 such cases — a record at the time.

Subsequent spikes in hospitalizations and deaths have followed the surge of new infections.

It is unclear how the public will greet the new mask requirements. Residents opposed to a local mask order shouted down Natrona County officials in a public meeting earlier this month, but support for masks also appears to have grown. More than 62% of respondents to a November Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center poll supported mask requirements in indoor public places, the highest percentage in the poll’s lifetime.

Monday, the Wyoming Department of Health confirmed that eight additional counties had requested mask orders. Carbon County was the only county not included in the eight whose mandate was approved Tuesday.

Photos: A visit to Wyoming Public Health Laboratory

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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"The reason to do this is simple," Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell said Thursday. "We want to keep this county and its citizens healthy. We want to keep the businesses open and we want to keep the schools open."

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