By Caleb Michael Smith, Rock Springs Rocket Miner
ROCK SPRINGS – While coronavirus vaccinations are being distributed locally, health officials warn masks, distancing and other safety guidelines are expected to continue through at least spring 2021 as Sweetwater County remains a long way away from herd immunity.
During the bimonthly update on COVID-19, health officials in Sweetwater County said cases are decreasing across the state, including in Sweetwater County, but they remain high.
Unofficially, there have been 19 coranavirus-related deaths in Sweetwater County, though the latest four had not been officially announced by the state as of Monday’s meeting. All the metrics highlighted Monday – number of active cases, cases per 100,000 people, and percentage of positive test results – placed Sweetwater County among the highest in Wyoming.
For example, Dr. Jean Stachon, the Sweetwater County health officer, said locally they are seeing a 17.4% positivity rate among tests, which is the highest in the state. Washakie County is next with about 14% and the rest of the state is closer to 12%. To receive a “green light,” Stachon said the goal is only 4% positivity.
Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer, has said she would want at least two weeks of low transmission before granting variances to state health orders, such as those requiring masks, restricting crowd sizes or restricting bar and restaurant sales in the evening.
While some businesses have asked for variances to be open later on New Year’s Eve, Stachon said she hasn’t passed on any requests since Sweetwater County cases remain too high to meet the standard.
Ours are going down, but a lot slower than everybody else, she said.
Hospitalizations have also been up, with an all-time high of 10 cases on Christmas Eve, according to Kim White with Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County. On Monday, eight people were hospitalized locally with more receiving University of Utah care and/or long-term care in Salt Lake City.
Local immunization efforts are continuing with the first doses going to medical workers, long-term care facilities and emergency medical service, fire and law enforcement officers. The 1A group also includes those who administer the vaccine, collect COVID-19 samples, dental care providers, pharmacy workers, school nurses and care providers like Able Hands and Life Skills.
About 320 doses of the 975 Pfizer vaccines available have been administered. No adverse reactions have been reported so far. Doses of the Moderna vaccine are expected to arrive this week. Both vaccines require two doses to grant the recipient immunity, though it is not known how long it lasts.
People can still receive the vaccine even if they have tested positive for the coronavirus. However, if people have contracted it in the last 90 days, they are encouraged to delay vaccination. Kim Lionberger, director of Sweetwater County Public Health, is within the three-month window of testing positive and is putting off her vaccination so others can get it who haven’t had any exposure yet.
Local health officials are still waiting on state guidelines to dictate who is in the next wave of recipients, which is expected to include front-line, essential workers who didn’t fit in the first category like those in education, food production, manufacturing, postal workers, grocery workers and those over age 75. The Wyoming Department of Health is expected to release that information this week.
Dr. Stachon said she expected statewide health orders to continue after the current set expires Jan. 8, 2021, and any variances will depend on the local metrics.
“We will just see where our numbers are at that point,” she said.
Stachon and other health experts said masking and other safety guidelines are going to continue to be important until herd immunity is reached. She defined that as about 70% of the population being vaccinated or having contracted COVID-19. On Monday, she said the county population is about 43,000 and there are about 3,000 known cases in Sweetwater County and a few hundred people vaccinated. Ignoring the fact that the first wave of vaccinations won’t be complete until the second dose is given in about a month, she said that still leaves Sweetwater County way short of the 30,100 goal expected for herd immunity.
The county health officer said she doesn’t expect the county to reach that benchmark “until the end of spring, but that’s just a best guess.”
“It remains important for our county to protect each other,” she said.
For now, people need to continue to wear masks, wash hands, keep their distance from others and stay home when sick. While improvements have been seen, Stachon said “we’re just at the beginning of this.”
“It’s going to be a way of life for months,” she said.