20200314-news-covid7

Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, discusses the need to self-quarantine if people show symptoms of the coronavirus at a news conference Friday, March 13, 2020, at CRMC. Gary Gwin/For the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – A recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Laramie County can be traced back to a few large gatherings and still-too-low vaccination rates, said Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department.

These events include a large wedding, a church gathering and graduation parties. She said there was also a nursing home that had seen an increase in the number of cases affecting both staff and patients.

“I would say that the increases are due to gatherings of people who are not vaccinated, and all it takes is one positive person,” Emmons said. “If people are not vaccinated, it just spreads like wildfire.”

Emmons said Laramie County’s case numbers slowly started ticking up again in mid-March, but that around May 10, the county began seeing a “significant” increase in cases.

Wyoming Department of Health numbers from Wednesday put Laramie County at 236 active cases – comparable to the county’s case numbers in January, Emmons said – out of a total 551 active cases in the state.

At Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, 21 patients were hospitalized on Wednesday with COVID-19, with eight in the intensive care unit and five on ventilators. Five people have died from the virus in the past eight days.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorize Laramie and Sweetwater counties at a high level of community transmission, meaning there have been more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. Just 9.5% of U.S. counties are presently in the “high” category.

On Thursday, June 10, the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department announced it had reinstated its masking requirement for visitors to its building because of “a recent rash of COVID cases” within the Laramie County jail.

The county has seen an increase in the Delta variant, Emmons said. First identified in India, the CDC said this variant now makes up at least 10% of U.S. COVID cases.

“If it goes the way here that it’s done everywhere else, that’s going to continue to bring about more challenges as far as spread and illness, so we just need people to get vaccinated,” she said.

At a Tuesday meeting of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Board of Health, Emmons described the COVID-19 situation in the county as “not looking good.”

“At one point we were down to single digits, and for the last couple weeks, we’ve been just aggressively picking back up,” Emmons said at the meeting. “So, that’s definitely not a good sign.”

”You can lead a horse to water”

Recent vaccination rates in the county have been “very stagnant,” Emmons said. At its peak, the health department was vaccinating about 400 people each day, compared to about 15 earlier this week.

Out of those in the county who are 12 and older, 41.7% have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. This puts Laramie County in fifth place in Wyoming, out of 23 counties. Teton County leads with 78.3% of its eligible population fully vaccinated.

Emmons stressed that the COVID-19 vaccine continues to be free of charge, regardless of where a person receives it. Providers may request patients bring their insurance information to bill for administrative fees, but those without insurance do not pay these fees.

During Tuesday’s board of health meeting, chair Dr. Darryl Bindschadler spoke about the county’s stagnation in vaccination rates related to recent spikes in case numbers. He referred to the adage: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

“It’s interesting to me that the place where the infections are occurring in terms of age has certainly changed, and certainly the highest risk people are largely either protected or they’re deceased, they’re gone,” Bindschadler said. “We can do what we can do, and I don’t think we should lose a whole lot of sleep over the fact that we’re in this situation.”

In Laramie County, 73.5% of people 65 years and older – those typically at higher risk of more serious cases of COVID-19 – have been fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

“I don’t think we should give up, but goodness sakes, I don’t think anybody has innovative ideas,” continued Bindschadler, a physician trained in public health. “The idea of giving $5 million to (get) the vaccine is not the answer to the understanding of putting your neighbor at risk, as well as yourself. If they can’t get that simple message across after all of the deluge of information that’s there, then somebody is going to end up suffering, and right now it’s our county, which is too bad.”

Laramie County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman added that there were two ways to get to herd immunity: a majority of people getting vaccinated, or “a whole bunch of people getting sick.”

“It looks like, in Laramie County, we’re opting for a mixed model,” Hartman said at the meeting.

Bindschadler mentioned he’d recently spoken with a CRMC employee, who said two of the hospital’s ICU nurses – two people who had cared for the most serious COVID patients – did not want to get vaccinated.

“And we just look at that and we shrug our shoulders and we think, ‘What the heck?’ There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “You can offer it to them, and if they take it, they take it, and if they don’t, it’s on them.”

In an interview, Emmons said she still wakes up in the middle of the night wondering what the health department could be doing differently in motivating people in the county to get vaccinated. Even so, the comments from her fellow health officials reflected a “reality check” for her.

“At what point do we say we’ve done everything we can and the patient is no longer listening or willing to do what needs to be done to be safe? And it’s hard, because I obviously take this incredibly seriously,” she said.

“We’ve provided lots of water, and people have to decide what they’re going to do with it now,” Emmons continued, referencing the saying Bindschadler used at the board of health meeting. “It’s just really disturbing and disappointing because, on our side, we see all of the patients that come through the hospital. ... It’s really hard on us because we see the reality of it, and it’s hard to believe that people don’t think it’s real when we see the effects every day.”

Emmons also said at the meeting that she’d spoken with Gov. Mark Gordon and suggested introducing some vaccination incentives for Wyomingites, as many other states have done.

Because of rising cases, City-County Health said it would offer free COVID testing by appointment on Mondays and Wednesdays. The Wyoming Department of Health also offers free at-home testing to Wyoming residents.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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