CASPER – Wyoming hospitals are treating as many COVID-19 patients now as they were in early January, which experts say is a concerning trend as a more contagious and likely more dangerous variant of the virus circulates through the state.
“It very much feels like it did in early fall,” Dr. Andy Dunn said.
Dunn is chief of primary care at Wyoming Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, and has overseen a variety of pandemic programs at the facility.
At one point last November, Dunn had spent three weeks straight at the hospital treating dozens of virus patients with no end in sight. When the pandemic peaked here, just under 250 people were hospitalized statewide.
Conditions have not deteriorated to that level, and Dunn said he feels hospital staff are ready and bracing for another surge.
Still, he called the current trend “terrifying.”
Eighty-seven people Tuesday were being treated at Wyoming hospitals for COVID-19. Of those, nearly 20 percent were at Wyoming Medical Center.
Dunn has often lamented Wyoming and Natrona County’s low vaccination rates and said it’s a major driver of the current increase. Just 37 percent of the state is fully inoculated, despite vaccines being available to the general public since late March.
With the Delta variant now considered the dominant strain in Wyoming and nationwide, and with the unvaccinated driving new cases, Dunn said he’s worried about what could come this fall, particularly when school resumes.
Not only is the Delta variant more contagious, but evidence suggests it can cause more severe illness. Dunn said that tracks with what he’s been seeing both at the hospital and at regular doctor’s appointments.
“We still see some people complain of loss of taste or smell, but we’re seeing more of the constellation of respiratory symptoms upfront,” Dunn said. “They’re definitely sicker, and they’re also getting worse (faster) in my opinion or their deterioration seems to be a little bit quicker than the previous variants.”
He added those hospitalized are more frequently in their 20s, 30s and 40s, whereas older residents were the bulk of hospitalizations before the vaccines became available.
Vaccination rates are higher for residents 65 years and older, which Dunn partly attributes to the shift.
Despite Delta’s dominance, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist is stressing vaccines are still the best tool to thwart the virus.
“We are deeply concerned. The Delta variant has really changed the COVID fight we have on our hands. Unfortunately, Wyoming’s low vaccination rate makes our state more vulnerable to this highly contagious variant,” she said in a Wednesday statement.
The health department has not been publishing raw data on the vaccination status of newly infected and hospitalized individuals, but in a release Wednesday gave an overview of those figures.
Roughly 95 percent of more than 5,000 confirmed and probable new cases between May 1 and July 28 were among unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated residents, according to the health department.
Just under 94 percent of the roughly 300 people hospitalized with the virus during that time did not report being fully vaccinated.
“However, no vaccine can prevent all infections and that’s why we see a small percentage of what we call ‘breakthrough’ cases,” Harrist said. “The overwhelming majority of ‘breakthrough’ cases that are identified do not involve serious illness. In other words, vaccines certainly help keep you from getting COVID-19 in the first place, but if you do get it you are far less likely to get severely ill.”
She added, “The Delta variant must be taken seriously because it spreads much more easily between people than the COVID-19 we’ve become familiar with. There are also concerns from experts that as the Delta variant spreads the number of breakthrough cases will increase … because the Delta variant is essentially like COVID-19 upping its game against us, we have to fight back a little harder for now.”
Harrist told the Star-Tribune last week she recommends people in areas with moderate to high transmission rates don face masks again regardless of vaccination status.
Eight counties including Natrona are excluded from that condition based on state-specific metrics.
No counties are excluded when referencing the CDC guidance, which calculates transmission using a shorter timeframe.
Dunn said he recommends residents in Natrona County wear face masks regardless of their vaccination status, and added that those with questions about vaccines should call their doctor.
“We need to change our course, and we need to do it quickly,” he said.