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Cheyenne Regional Medical Center COVID unit charge nurse Kristen Hefenieder, right, and COVID unit nurse manager Dani Lovato place heart-shaped window clings on the windows of the hospital lobby Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in downtown Cheyenne. Staff members placed the hearts, which are meant to honor the dedication and heroism of the CRMC staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, on windows following a ceremony honoring the hospital’s employees, patients and providers. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – In Laramie County and across Wyoming, hospitalizations connected to COVID-19 have reached their highest levels since late January, though this week’s numbers remain well below the peaks seen in November and December last year.

Nevertheless, the numbers have caused some trepidation among medical officials in Laramie County. On Monday, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center was reporting 19 patients with COVID-19, the highest number since Jan. 24, according to Wyoming Department of Health data.

Similar to trends in Laramie County, the number of COVID-related hospitalizations across Wyoming has also grown to its highest point since late January. The state had 58 virus-related hospitalizations Monday, far less than the highest point of 247 in late November.

Still, CRMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeff Chapman said Tuesday that the trend was “very concerning,” especially given the ongoing possibility of people experiencing long-term side effects from the coronavirus after being hospitalized.

“When we’re seeing more people in the hospital, there’s a greater chance that the people that survived – which is still the great majority – are going to have longer-term consequences, and we’re still having deaths,” Chapman said.

CRMC has also been seeing a higher rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations among younger people, which aligns with what medical officials nationwide have reported as more elderly people receive COVID-19 vaccines.

“We still have the older population, there’s no question, but we certainly have seen more people in the 30-to-60 (year old) range than we did before,” Chapman said.

The patient demographics largely mirror those who have been testing positive for COVID-19 recently, in part due to vaccination rates in different age groups, according to Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department.

While 72% of residents ages 65 and above have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, about a third of the county’s total population has received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data Tuesday.

“We’re seeing little kids testing positive. It used to be that a younger person testing positive was in their 50s, with where we were a year ago. Now, we’re seeing 50 as the top age, rather than the bottom age, of those who are positive,” Emmons said Tuesday. “We’re seeing a lot more 20s and 30s, very few in their 60s. I don’t even remember the last time I saw a 70-year-old.”

Some of the positive cases have come from large gatherings, such as indoor birthday parties and extracurricular activities, with many people in attendance unvaccinated and not wearing masks. Echoing Chapman, Emmons said the trend was particularly worrying, given the uncertainty surrounding long-term effects from COVID-19, especially in younger people.

Over the last seven days, Wyoming had the second-highest positive case rate of any U.S. state, trailing only Delaware, according to CDC data Tuesday. Meanwhile, as news came Tuesday that half of all U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Wyoming continues to trail behind, with vaccination rates in the bottom 10 of all states.

At the local level, Emmons said Laramie County has seen “a significant slowdown” in people seeking vaccinations.

“We just keep trying to educate as much as we can,” she said. “Then, we’ve done some incentives, like Cheyenne Frontier Days has generously donated two tickets each to six concerts, and we’re doing a raffle for people who come in and get vaccinated.”

With the last of Wyoming’s remaining public health orders set to expire at the end of this month, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist encouraged the public to get vaccinated in a statement last week.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has not disappeared completely,” Harrist said. “We continue to see confirmed cases across the state. The vast majority of recent, new cases have involved people who were not yet fully vaccinated.

“I strongly encourage anyone who is eligible, but who hasn’t yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible,” she added. “These vaccines are free, safe and effective. They offer many benefits, such as the ability to avoid quarantine after exposure to COVID-19, and are the best route we have to outsmart the pandemic.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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