TORRINGTON – As of Wednesday morning, there were 41 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming spread over nine counties, but due to a lack of testing supplies and the mild symptoms experienced by some who are infected, the number of actual cases is likely much higher.
Governor Mark Gordon said that’s likely the case during a press conference Monday. The apparent sudden jump in the number of cases in the Cowboy State is actually due to increased testing capacity at the Wyoming State Health Laboratory, and it came on the deadliest day of the pandemic in the United States. According to data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, 160 Americans died Tuesday, bringing the nationwide death toll to 544.
“I want to emphasize the number of confirmed positives is not an accurate indicator of the presence of COVID-19 in Wyoming,” Gordon said. “There are likely more people who are positive. While we continue to increase our testing capacity, like every state in the country, supplies are limited.
“That means that many people who may be positive are not getting testing. Being that we can’t test everyone, the one thing we can do is limit the spread by social distancing measures.”
As of Tuesday evening, there were no confirmed cases in Goshen County, and no deaths in Wyoming. Gordon, along with State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, said social distancing is still the best way to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We are seeing cases that are community spread,” Gordon said. “That means people are being infected with the virus but we are not sure how or where they were infected. It is absolutely critical that we do everything we can to socially distance from one another.
“That means staying home whenever possible. Working from home if it’s achievable, and limiting our trips. The more places you visit, the more opportunities there are for the virus to spread. It is also vital that people stay home when they are sick or call their provider if they feel ill.”
Harrist explained that the virus spreads through respiratory droplets. She agreed with Gordon that the best way to prevent the spread, and protect yourself, is to observe social distancing recommendations.
“The main way this virus spreads is through respiratory droplets,” she said. “If you’re ill and you cough or sneeze, and you’re close to other people, you can easily spread this disease to anyone nearby. That is why we want to limit the number of people that we’re close to.
“Staying away from others as much as possible helps protect yourself, your families and the members of our communities who are most vulnerable to this illness.”
Doctors and scientists still have a lot of questions about the way COVID-19 spreads, Harrist said. It’s unknown if asymptomatic people, or people who are in the two-week period after they’ve been exposed and before they show symptoms, can transmit the virus. In either case, she said it’s important to practice social distancing.
“The science behind these coronaviruses and what we know about this coronavirus is that people are most likely to be contagious and it will most easily transmit when they are the most infectious,” she said. “There are still things that we need to learn about this virus, including whether there could be asymptomatic transmission. However, even in that case, the most significant mode of spread is going to be between symptomatic people.
“The six feet of distance will protect you either way, whether that person is symptomatic or asymptomatic. But still, along with social distancing, the other critical recommendation and ask is that if people are sick, and they have symptoms that make it easier to transmit to somebody else, that they stay home and that is an incredible measure at prevention.”
Social distancing is even more important in Wyoming, Harrist said, because testing supplies are limited. It’s a nationwide problem, and as of Tuesday, there were 1,300 collection kits available statewide. The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory has increased its capacity and has the ability to test 100 samples per day. To date, the lab has tested over 500 samples and there is no backlog.
“We know there will not be enough sample collection supplies for everybody to get tested,” she said. “For this reason, we need to prioritize testing severely ill patients who are hospitalized, patients who are elderly or who have chronic medical conditions and are at risk for severe illness, people who have close contact with others who are at risk for severe illness, and healthcare workers.”
Healthcare workers are also facing a shortage of personal protection equipment. Wyoming has received one shipment of PPE supplies from a national strategic stockpile, and those will be doled out county-by-county. The PPE is essential, Gordon said, because it protects the very people tasked with identifying and treating COVID-19.
“We know now that if people don’t use personal protective equipment, they themselves can be at risk,” Gordon said. “That is a challenge to the healthcare community. We are diligently monitoring PPE levels on a county-by-county basis. PPE supplies, both in Wyoming and nationally, are limited. We have received one shipment from the strategic national stockpile, and along with the shipment from that, a portion of the state inventory is being distributed to counties and tribal nations. PPE supplies are scarce and we are continuing to work with our federal partners at FEMA and the CDC to submit additional requests for PPE.”
That shortage is being felt in Goshen County as well, according to Goshen County Emergency Management Coordinator Shelly Kirchhefer.
“This is an issue nationwide,” she said. “It starts at the federal level and it trickles down to the local level. Some states have been hit harder than we have, of course, and there is a shortage.
“It’s statewide, county-by-county, and they’re working on ways to alleviate that. Suppliers are out.”
The shortage isn’t necessarily due to a wealth of COVID-19 cases, but providers have to take precautions when symptoms are present. The novel coronavirus presents like the flu, cold and allergies with common symptoms such as a dry cough, shortness of breath and a fever.
“They’re looking at influenza, too,” Kirchhefer said. “They have to take precautions on everything that’s happening in Wyoming. This isn’t just because of COVID-19.”
Gordon closed Monday’s press conference with a final reminder for the public to practice social distancing, and for first responders and healthcare providers to protect themselves.
“Community spread means things can show up out of the blue,” he said. “That is why we have to be so careful in how we socially distance and maintain our hygiene.
“As our first responders arrive, if they’re exposed in any way to COVID-19, those responders are having to self-isolate. They have to take themselves out of doing their job. It is absolutely important that we … keep our people protected. That is why it is so good for Wyoming citizens to take care of things to address this virus right from the state.”