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‘It is a mess:’ COVID variant surge in Laramie County ‘very concerning’ as CFD moves forward

Crowds gather at Cheyenne Frontier Days 2021 (Jason P. Niedbalski for Cap City News)

CASPER, Wyo. – Health experts are watching closely as a more aggressive variant of COVID-19 spreads in Laramie County.

“Cheyenne has the same or heavier hospitalization load as it did in January, which is very concerning,” says infectious disease specialist and Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell.

“It’s involving younger people, and they have several patients in their intensive care unit,” he said. “It is a mess.

Additionally, Dowell says there is more COVID activity being traced in Sweetwater County.

Cheyenne Frontier Days was canceled last year due to the pandemic, but this year is moving forward during a time when hospitalization rates in the country are rapidly climbing.

Executive Director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department Kathy Emmons said the CLCHD has been working closely with Cheyenne Frontier Days to ensure that effective protocols and processes are in place.

“We have done everything we can do to make sure this is a safe environment for people,” Emmons told Cap City news on July 22nd. Many of the protocols rely on the honor system, urging attendees to follow hand hygiene, “respiratory etiquette” such as covering one’s mouth when sneezing, and using cashless systems for transactions.

Masks are “strongly encouraged” during indoor events, she said, but not mandatory.

Dowell says the economic impact of Cheyenne Frontier Days is undeniable, and health experts agreed that COVID trends were pointing in the right direction when it was decided that the rodeo should move forward.

“There was no reason not to have it,” he said. “Unfortunately between the time everything was given a go to have it, Laramie County had a big explosion in cases.”

Dowell says in response to the outbreak, increased onsite testing has been made available at the rodeo, which will also help health experts track the data.

“There may be a significant uptick in cases across the region, or there may not be,” he said. “We just don’t know.”

“It’s outdoors but there’s a lot of indoor stuff, and there are so many people close to each other not masking, so we’ll see.”

There were no significant changes in infections after the CNFR in Casper, he said.

Dowell says Natrona County seems to be in a “bubble” so far, with relatively few COVID patients. However, “we’re still seeing hospitalized patients every week, and some quite ill.”

“There’s a lack of testing goin on because people aren’t getting tested, so we don’t have a good sense as to what’s going on in Natrona County, but I suspect it’s increasing.”

Nearly all of the COVID patients who are hospitalized are unvaccinated, he said. Wyoming’s vaccination rate remains stubbornly among the lowest in the nation, making more of the population susceptible to the virus.

The Delta variant is a COVID-19 mutation that originated in India, and is what health experts describe as the “fastest, fittest and most formidable version” of the virus so far.

Dowell says the Delta variant is now the most prominent version infecting people in the U.S., and it is far more contagious than previous versions.

“The virus is looking for fresh meat,” he said. “It mutates to survive, and then it looks for a host that’s never been infected by it nor has any protection.”

Dowell and other health experts are concerned about the fall, when more activities move indoors and the new school season starts. In addition, the politicization of masking and other precautions has made implementing new restrictions difficult. None are being considered for the time being, he said.

“I’m not sure what fall and winter is going to bring, but I’m quite concerned that if our vaccination rates stay this low, and two-thirds of our population is completely susceptible to the most contagious COVID that we’ve seen, it’s not hard to imagine that this is going to be a significant issue.”

“This virus could be in the rearview mirror if the country would vaccinate. We could put this all behind us and move on,” he said.

“It’s not something to be proud of that Wyoming is 48th in the country for vaccination rates.”