Health official warns case data is ‘falsely low’;  doctor says slower rise doesn’t mean disease is ebbing

CASPER — The number of confirmed Wyoming coronavirus cases announced daily has held steady in recent days after significant growth late last month, but Natrona County’s health officer said the data is “falsely low” and added he expects more deaths, hours after the state confirmed its second fatality from the virus. 

“I think it’s probably setting us up for misunderstanding the data,” Dr. Mark Dowell, who’s also an infectious disease expert, said during a Wednesday news conference. “I don’t think it means anything. We’re going to continue looking at trends, but if Wyoming follows every other area where there has been virus, we expect this to turn around and go up again.” 

Every day, the state Health Department releases a new number of confirmed cases in Wyoming. Those totals have slowed somewhat in recent weeks, though they continue to tick upward. But that shouldn’t be interpreted as the state flattening the infection curve, Dowell said, though he acknowledged that it’s unclear just what Wyoming’s curve will look like.

“We have not flattened any curve at all,” he said. 

Officials across the state, including in hard-hit areas like Fremont and Teton counties, have said that the pandemic here will get worse before it gets better. 

Some, like Gov. Mark Gordon, have said the virus may peak in early May. 

Dowell said that some models have suggested late April to early May, though he again cautioned that no one can predict what will happen and that Wyoming’s rural nature is a wildcard in any attempt to project the virus’ peaks and valleys. 

Nationally, health officials — as well as Dowell here in Wyoming — have strongly urged against loosening social restrictions too soon, even if the curve stabilizes or drops. That’s a recipe, they say, for the disease to come roaring back. 

“There isn’t anybody in the epidemiology world or in infectious diseases that is suggesting that we’re anywhere near loosening anything up in the near future,” Dowell told the Natrona County school board last month. “It would be disastrous to not follow that curve very carefully and err on the cautious side rather than find out we loosened stuff too soon and had a lot of bad disease occur.” 

There are 288 confirmed cases in Wyoming as of Wednesday afternoon. There have been two deaths, both reported this week, and there are 105 probable cases. 

The first death was confirmed Monday. The deceased was an older Johnson County man — whom Gordon, also from Johnson County, described Wednesday as “a friend” — who had preexisting medical conditions that made him especially at risk for a serious infection. 

The second fatality was confirmed Wednesday as an older Laramie County resident who died at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center after being hospitalized there for “several weeks.” The man died Tuesday. He had no known other health issues, a state Health Department spokeswoman said. 

In addition to the fatalities and confirmed cases, 176 Wyomingites have recovered from their illnesses. 

Dowell said the recoveries were “great,” though he cautioned that the figure was a bit misleading because of the proportion of younger people in the state with the disease. Younger people generally respond better to the virus than older, sicker people. 

More than 50 percent of Wyoming’s coronavirus patients are under the age of 50. But the doctor said he was “very disappointed” in what he’s seen in Natrona County recently. 

On a recent trip to a grocery store and to the post office, few staff members were wearing masks; even fewer customers had face coverings on, despite federal and state recommendations that the gear be worn in public places. 

Dowell said he expects more deaths than the two confirmed as of Wednesday. 

He said multiple people have been hospitalized at Wyoming Medical Center, and there are five people currently in the hospital’s intensive care unit. 

“We have an aging population in Wyoming; we have a lot of people with COPD and heart disease and kidney disease,” he said. “Those are the people who are at the highest risk of dying. I expect those deaths. I expect a significantly greater number as we go on.”