CASPER — The highly contagious delta variant of the novel coronavirus has been identified in Wyoming, according to state data.
Categorized as a “variant of concern” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant is thought to be more transmissible than any previous mutation.
Early research suggests it may also be more resistant to COVID-19 antibodies and could cause more severe illness, according to the CDC.
The variant is most concentrated in Laramie County, with 33 infections identified there as of Tuesday. A handful of variant infections were also identified in Natrona, Fremont, Sweetwater and Albany counties.
Variants are identified largely by the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory conducting genome sequencing on positive COVID-19 test samples.
“It is important to remember that not all samples are sequenced, so this is likely an underrepresentation of the number of delta variant cases in Wyoming,” State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said via email, adding that that’s true for all variants.
“The current data indicate that the vaccines have effectiveness against this variant. The vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness even with variant infections,” Harrist said. “The best way for people to protect themselves against infection with this highly transmissible variant is to get vaccinated against COVID-19.”
During a White House briefing Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed that vaccines could help keep the variant in check.
“We have the tools so let’s use them,” Fauci said at the briefing.
But in Wyoming, vaccine uptake remains low. Just over 30 percent of the population has been fully inoculated against the virus and the state ranks almost last for uptake nationally.
The state is ranked third-lowest for those who have received at least one shot and fourth-lowest for those fully-vaccinated, according to a New York Times data analysis.
“The lower our vaccination rates, in combination with this variant that is highly contagious, the more at risk we are for seeing increased cases of COVID-19 and illnesses,” Harrist added via health department spokesperson Kim Deti.
Deti added, “We also want people to know initial data suggest that the delta variant may be associated with more severe illness than other variants, but this is something the experts are still examining.”
Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell also said the variant could cause another surge here if vaccination remains low.
“I would expect an uptick, the way it’s going,” Dowell said. “I’m concerned more about the fall than I am now. ... With such a small percentage of population vaccinated, people are writing their own story.”
Dowell said he hopes the variant’s spread motivates the unvaccinated to get their shots, adding Cheyenne Regional Medical Center is already feeling the variant’s burden.
That hospital had 26 virus patients as of Wednesday, and 12 of 25 intensive care unit beds were in use. Laramie County has had the most new COVID-19 infections over the last two weeks by far.