As case numbers spike, cause of coronavirus spread harder to pin down


CASPER — As the novel coronavirus continues to spike through the summer, health officials from across Wyoming say the spread can’t be attributed to large clusters but rather to small gatherings and younger people. 

During the initial wave of the virus across the state, cases could often be linked to a jumping-off point: Fremont County, which remains the hardest-hit county, had the first outbreak at an assisted-living facility, which spread outward and affected tribal members in large households. 

Casper had a large share of its early cases attributed to an outbreak at Wyoming Behavioral Institute. Teton County officials said its early spread likely came from interstate travel. Several cases and deaths were linked to a Worland nursing home. A gathering at bar in Uinta County led to scores of cases. 

Now, as the virus’s spread surged in July, officials say the source is more diffuse. Jodie Pond, who runs Teton County’s health department, said community spread from gatherings and from travel is becoming more common there. Teton County had an early surge in cases before leveling off in May and June.

But its caseload has climbed again; as of Friday afternoon, it stands at just under 300, the third-highest number of cases in the state. A Harvard Global Health Initiative tool placed Teton County in its highest risk category, the only one in Wyoming and one of a handful in the Rockies. 

“We do not have one particular thing we can identify as an ‘outbreak,’” Pond wrote in an email. “We have cases due to community spread, travel related (both visitors and locals traveling) and a large number of cases in the under 30 demographic.” 

According to county data, 157 of Teton County’s confirmed patients are younger than 30. Statewide, 41% of confirmed patients are under 30. 

The age demographics have skewed younger throughout the summer; in mid-June, for instance, the under-30 demographic still represented a plurality, but the other age groups were closer than they are now. It was similarly close in May. 

Pond added that the spread in the under-30 demographic could be linked to “small BBQs, after hours parties” and other social gatherings. 

Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said the same is true generally statewide. 

She said the new cases are often a mix of “bars or places, churches, gatherings.” She said there had been a good mix of community spread — meaning cases that can’t necessarily be traced to one single source. 

That sentiment was echoed again by Hailey Bloom, a spokeswoman for the Casper-Natrona County Health Department. 

Spread hasn’t “necessarily (been) linked to one specific gathering, activity or event but rather a group of households (family, friends, coworkers, etc.) coming together and one person may not yet be symptomatic but within that contagious period,” Bloom wrote in an email. “These don’t seem to be really large gatherings, events or activities but more like a group of ~10-20 people going camping together, having a BBQ, a birthday party, etc. Of course if someone is contagious but not yet symptomatic, is around a group, even of that size and others catch it and the same type of scenario repeats on and on — you can see how it can get multiple layers deep pretty quick.” 

Though Uinta County had a large spread from one single bar, a health official there told the Star-Tribune earlier this summer that the initial spike there could be attributed to a series of gatherings around Memorial Day weekend. 

In late May, a sudden spike in Albany County — which until that point had largely been spared — was linked to graduation parties, camping trips and other gatherings. 

Messages sent to health officials in other hot spots — Uinta, Sweetwater, Fremont and Laramie counties — were not returned this week. 

In total, 1,070 cases were confirmed in Wyoming in July — more than 47% of the state’s total since the pandemic was first identified. For comparison, in June, the next highest month, 491 cases were confirmed in Wyoming.

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