State health officials announced more COVID-19 related deaths in the final week of 2020 than in any previous week of Wyoming’s struggle with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Those dark tidings were tempered by a continued decline of active COVID-19 case counts over the last two weeks, despite a flood of new cases reported Wednesday.
The Wyoming Department of Health reported 456 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Dec. 28, the highest single-day tally of the season. The same day, the department announced 32 deaths. The death figure was the largest announced in a single day, before being surpassed on Thursday the 31st with 33. The DOH reports deaths in batches that, in some instances, stretch back weeks.
As of Dec. 31, the Department of Health reported 1,839 known and probable active cases in the state — a 20% drop from week 40, and 84% down from the high of 11,793 on Nov. 24.
All told, Wyoming has tallied 38,010 lab-confirmed infections and 438 deaths.
Wyoming’s state prison remains in the grip of its second COVID-19 outbreak. The Wyoming Department of Corrections on Dec. 29 reported 21 cases among inmates and three among staff at the men’s high security prison in Rawlins. The department reported 13 cases among inmates and three among staff at the men’s medium security prison in Torrington.
The apparent slowing of the virus’s previously rapid spread follows Gov. Mark Gordon’s implementation of stricter health orders Dec. 7, including a requirement for face coverings in businesses, healthcare facilities and on public transportation.
Those orders are currently set to expire Jan. 8. Gordon and Wyoming Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist will evaluate a continuation or change of the orders based on contagion and hospitalization metrics.
Retiring lawmaker Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) has called for a rally in Cheyenne Jan. 4 to oppose such public health measures. Clem, who is a pastor, had to briefly end in-person services in his church after COVID-19 infected members of the congregation. At least one church member, fellow lawmaker Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette), died from the disease.
Regionally and nationally, a number of new developments tampered recent optimism following the beginning of vaccine distributions. For one thing, vaccine distribution is occurring much slower than officials predicted. The health department, originally predicting Wyoming would have received more than 27,000 doses by the end of December, reported having received 21,300 vaccines as of Tuesday Dec. 29, and having administered 5,466.
For another, a new coronavirus strain experts believe to be more contagious appeared this week in Colorado and then California.
The new strain was first detected in Great Britain, scientists say, and could have an increased transmission rate of as much as 70%, according to some models. The strain is not believed to be more deadly and the current vaccines likely will still be effective against it, according to experts.
The state is set to get new aid, and dodged a deadline this week to account for all its previous CARES Act money, after President Donald Trump signed a stimulus and spending package he had initially threatened to veto. Wyoming businesses and individuals could see relief money soon, while the unemployed in the state will be eligible for increased weekly benefits. The package also includes billions of dollars to help speed distribution of vaccines.
The new package will not, however, help the state out of dire fiscal straits that are driving cuts to public health. Gordon on Dec. 22 announced the use of $12 million in CARES Act money for a new program to support charitable organizations. The money will be administered by county and tribal governments.