UPDATE: This story was updated Friday afternoon to include the most up-to-date case data from the Wyoming Department of Health. —Ed.
Wyoming’s death count from COVID-19 jumped from two to seven this week, but officials are beginning to look ahead to a limited reopening of some businesses shuttered by state orders.
This week, the state’s confirmed case count increased by 36 cases, from 313 on Sunday to 349 as of Friday afternoon. Experts and officials agree positive test numbers fall well short of the reality of the disease’s spread.
Four members of the Northern Arapaho tribe, three of whom were reportedly family, died on Monday. Tribal and Fremont County officials said they believe the disease’s spread on the Wind River Indian Reservation was more widespread than previously thought. Some of the deceased had contracted COVID-19 before the county’s first documented case was announced, Fremont County Health Officer Dr. Brian Gee said.
On Wednesday night, officials also announced the death of an elderly Teton County man.
Still, State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said the increase in deaths this week does not mean the disease was worsening in Wyoming. “Most of the individuals who did die had been sick and hospitalized for quite some time and had been hospitalized several weeks before their death,” she said.
The state is looking at broader metrics — hospitalization numbers, new infections, community spread — “as we decide when and how to move forward,” she said.
Barbershops, gyms and cosmetologists may be allowed to reopen in May, Gov. Mark Gordon said, though the businesses will need to adhere to certain operating procedures. New public health orders will likely appear next week, the governor said. Still, despite many caveats he offered about the future, Gordon also talked about loving “the feeling of success.”
Officials are considering how to advance everything from opening bars to summer rodeos and campgrounds as they plan their next steps, Gordon said. The state’s decisions will not be based on politics, he said, in a week that brought more protests against health orders, including the state’s largest to date in Cheyenne on Monday.
A set of metrics the governor presented described the state’s increase in cases, percentage of tests coming back positive, hospital bed and ICU bed availability as all “stabilizing.” The percentage of cases attributable to community spread, as opposed to identifiable sources of infection, and the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations remained “concerning,” according to the metrics.
The metrics will determine how the state reopens, and as they change “restrictions might remain in place or even tighten,” a guide to reopening released by the governor’s office said.
Gordon’s plan permits county health officers to submit a tailored plan to the state. Gordon’s home county, Johnson, already jumped the gun on taking independent action. The county’s public health officer allowed a nail salon, an athletic club and a third business to reopen, the Buffalo Bulletin reported. “Let’s try a few small experiments,” Dr. Mark Schueler told the newspaper.
The state’s first COVID-19-related death was reported in Johnson County.
Economic impacts in the state, already dire, took a turn for the worse on Thursday. Coal country, under duress before the pandemic, saw 300 layoffs as mining output continues to decline and companies contract. Longtime firm Peabody Energy announced 170 layoffs and newcomer Navajo Transitional Energy Company, which only recently acquired mines in Wyoming and Montana through bankruptcy sales, laid off 130. Many workers at NTEC’s Spring Creek mine in Montana live in the Sheridan area, according to previous reporting.
Elsewhere, the University of Wyoming instituted a hiring freeze and unemployment numbers in the state continued to rise, adding 3,294 claims to reach 15,735 by the end of last week. Last year, there were 2,758 people on the unemployment rolls at this time.
Some of the state’s hospitals are reporting serious financial trouble — A Campbell County hospital made cuts, and St. John’s Health in Jackson is losing around $6 million a month, the CEO there said, and will be financially “insolvent” within six to eight months at that rate.
But Wyoming babies continue to be born and community goodwill maintains as the state rounds the corner into the pandemic’s seventh week. Residents around the state howl at the moon in solidarity each evening, according to the Wyoming News Exchange. Cheyenne residents placed 2,000 orders by phone and cars lined up around the block to buy coffee and donuts and save a local shop that was too late to receive a federal loan before funding ran out.