As COVID cases increase, governor won’t require masks in schools this fall

Posted 8/5/21

After a months-long lull, cases of COVID-19 and related hospitalizations are currently on the rise in Wyoming and Park County.

As of Wednesday, the Wyoming Department of Health was reporting 46 …

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As COVID cases increase, governor won’t require masks in schools this fall


After a months-long lull, cases of COVID-19 and related hospitalizations are on the rise in Wyoming and Park County.

As of Wednesday, the Wyoming Department of Health was reporting 46 people actively infected in Park County, with seven people hospitalized with the disease. Cody Regional Health reported five COVID patients in their care, with two others at Powell Valley Healthcare. That represented the highest number of COVID-related hospitalizations since January, and a jump from a single patient in mid-July. The average number of daily new cases has also been rising.

"Viral transmission is up significantly due to variant cases predominantly among the unvaccinated," Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin said Wednesday night.

The state of Wyoming as a whole has been seeing a similar trend, with the Department of Health attributing the increasing cases to the more infectious Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.

“After months of relatively stable case numbers we have recently seen a sharp increase in most areas of the state. We are deeply concerned,” State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said in a Wednesday statement. “The Delta variant has really changed the COVID fight we have on our hands. Unfortunately, Wyoming’s low vaccination rate makes our state more vulnerable to this highly contagious variant.”

Across the state, roughly 33.7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to department data, including 36.6% in Park County; Billin called that rate "very low."

Health officials continue to stress vaccinations as one of the best ways to combat the virus.

The Department of Health recently reviewed more than 5,000 confirmed and probable cases identified among Wyoming residents between May 1 and July 28 and found roughly 95% of those people were not fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, a review of nearly 300 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 found that nearly 94% of them were not fully vaccinated, the department said.

Harrist noted that no vaccine can prevent all infections, and there are “a small percentage” of so-called “breakthrough” cases, in which vaccinated people fall ill with COVID in spite of being vaccinated.

However, “the overwhelming majority of ‘breakthrough’ cases that are identified do not involve serious illness,” she said. “In other words, vaccines certainly help keep you from getting COVID-19 in the first place, but if you do get it you are far less likely to get severely ill.”

Earlier this week, Billin cited statistics from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicating that 0.004% of breakthrough cases have resulted in hospitalization, with less than 0.001% proving fatal.

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the deaths of 34 Park County residents have been tied to the novel coronavirus, coming among just over 3,000 confirmed and probable cases.

As cases have risen, one of the questions going into the fall has been whether the state will require students to wear masks, as it did for most of last school year.

However, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Wednesday afternoon that he will not impose a mask mandate in classrooms and will leave the decision up to local school boards.

“Wyoming was first in the nation in having a safe and successful in-person school year last year,” Gordon said. “My focus is on supporting local school boards as they take into account conditions in their community and work to assure students learn safely this year too.”

Speaking Tuesday, Park County School District 1 Superintendent Jay Curtis said the district intends to start the school year without a requirement for face coverings, while fully supporting those who want to wear them.

“We are, however, cautious in our way forward, just knowing that there is potential,” Curtis added. “Seeing the Delta variant kind of blow numbers up around the country right now, it makes you a little bit nervous.”

Still, he described himself as “cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to start fairly normal.”

Meanwhile, with transmission rates rising in Park County and the other areas around Yellowstone National Park, the National Park Service announced last week that it would again require masks in indoor settings.

“Consistent with CDC guidance, visitors to Yellowstone, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask indoors and in all public and commercial transportation,” Yellowstone officials said in a Friday posting to Facebook.

On Sunday, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation announced a similar requirement at its interpretive center between Powell and Cody.

“We depend on visitors to keep our award-winning interpretive center thriving. To keep our visitors thriving, we ask all of you to wear a mask while inside our facilities,” the foundation said on Twitter.

Vaccines, masking and in-person instruction all remain political issues.

In a Wednesday speech on the floor of the Senate, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called for every school in America to open this fall — and he sharply criticized the “chaos and confusion” around the messaging from the White House and CDC on masks.

The CDC recently updated its guidance to say that, in areas with high rates of COVID-19 transmission, vaccinated individuals should wear masks within indoor, public spaces. It was a change that Dr. Harrist endorsed on Wednesday, but Barrasso described it as a flip-flop.

“... I ask, how is this going to help someone who hasn’t been vaccinated, encourage them to get vaccinated, if you are telling them that even if you get vaccinated, you still have to wear a mask?” Barrasso said.

He pushed back on the idea that Republicans were responsible for so-called “vaccine hesitancy” and charged that there is “a large number of Democrats who are still unvaccinated.”

The medical doctor said he and other Republican officials have been encouraging COVID vaccinations, calling the evidence “overwhelming” that they prevent serious illness.

“Vaccines work,” Barrasso said. “The single most important thing you want to do to protect yourself and to protect your family is to get vaccinated.”

In his Wednesday post to Facebook, Park County's health officer also emphasized vaccines.

"Although the CDC has recommended mask use indoors for all in areas of high transmission (Park County is 1 of 15 Wyoming Counties with high transmission), vaccination is the quickest path back to normal," Dr. Billin said.

(Tessa Baker contributed reporting.)