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Alexia Harrist

Monkeypox Hits U.S., Wyo State Health Officer Can’t Predict Whether It Will Spread To Wyoming

in News/Health care
Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A virus similar to smallpox has been detected in the United States, but there is no way to predict whether the illness will spread to Wyoming, according to the state’s public health officer.

Health officer and epidemiologist Dr. Alexia Harrist told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that it was difficult to say whether the spread of monkeypox was a cause for major concern as of yet.

“It’s too early to say at this point,” she said. “It will probably be a rapid learning process with this, but I think we’ll discover more in the coming days.”

According to the World Health Organization, the United States has from one to five confirmed cases of monkeypox, which typically occurs in central and west Africa.

Harrist explained that the virus typically causes symptoms such as a headache, fever and muscle aches, but also is accompanied by a distinct rash. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the symptoms are similar to, but milder than, smallpox.

Harrist said the illness has been traditionally associated with people who have traveled to Africa and caught it. However, the newest outbreak has seen symptoms popping up among gay and bisexual men.

“In the United States, it has been reported some individuals in these clusters have self-reported as men who have sex with men, but this is not all of the cases,” she said. “It’s not something easily spread as COVID. The main way it spreads is through skin-to-skin contact.”

Harrist said typically, people who have caught the virus will develop symptoms within a week or two, but she said the time can also range anywhere from five to 21 days.

She added that a monkeypox risk to the general public at this time was relatively low in the United States, but recommended that anyone who has recently traveled out of the country or had contact with someone diagnosed with monkeypox should speak with their health care provider.

Monkeypox can kill as many as 1 in 10 people who contract the disease, based on observations in Africa, according to the CDC.

According to WHO officials, the vaccine used to prevent smallpox appears to be about 85% effective in guarding against monkeypox, based on observational research in Africa.

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Wyo Health Officer Cautious On Second Covid Booster; “It’s A Personal Decision”

in News/Coronavirus
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s public health officer is softening her stance on the value of the latest COVID-19 booster shots, urging residents to speak with their doctors before getting a second booster as recommended by federal health officials.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the second COVID booster for people 50 years and older and those with compromised immune systems.

Around 45% of the state is currently fully vaccinated against COVID, almost 264,000 residents. However, there have only been 112,324 booster doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine boosters given and health care providers have said that this third booster significantly decreases the chances of getting COVID or getting very sick from the virus if a person does catch it.

Since the vaccines were made available to the public last year, Dr. Alexia Harrist and the Health Department have strongly recommended Wyoming residents get vaccinated against COVID.

However, with the latest booster recommendation, Harrist is urging those eligible for the shot to discuss the issue with a doctor before getting one.

“Our recommendation is that if a person fits into these categories, they should talk with their health care provider about whether this second booster may make sense for them,” Harrist said. “We strongly recommend people get their first booster, but the second is more of an individual’s decision.”

While there is discussion about the second booster being available for everyone in the future, Harrist said there is not enough data to support that recommendation at this time.

When the first booster shots were made available, Harrist said data reviewed by the Wyoming Department of Health indicates the booster shots make the vaccines more effective at preventing severe illness from coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, Wyoming had 60 active COVID cases across the state.

Wyoming has been one of the lowest vaccinated states in the nation when it comes to COVID, something Harrist and the health department have been working to combat.

Those interested in obtaining the second booster should have no problem finding the vaccine, Harrist said.

“It should already be available in Wyoming,” she said. “Any location that has a supply of Pfizer or Moderna should be able to give the second booster as of now.”

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Delta Variant Changing Wyoming’s COVID Situation, Wyoming Department Of Health Says

in News/Coronavirus
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is causing a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Wyoming, changing the state’s health outlook, according to the state’s public health officer.

Dr. Alexia Harris said the Delta variant is dominant in Wyoming right now, with most new cases in the state likely linked to the variant.

“After months of relatively stable case numbers we have recently seen a sharp increase in most areas of the state,” she said. “We are deeply concerned. 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.”

Just over 33% of Wyoming residents are fully vaccinated against the virus.

“The Delta variant must be taken seriously because it spreads much more easily between people than the COVID-19 we’ve become familiar with,” Harrist said. “There are also concerns from experts that as the Delta variant spreads the number of breakthrough cases will increase.”

A Wyoming Department of Health review of more than 5,000 lab-confirmed and probable coronavirus cases among Wyoming residents age 16 and older between May 1 and July 28 showed roughly 95% of the individuals did not report being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

During the same period, of the nearly 300 persons infected by COVID-19 who were hospitalized at the time they were interviewed by public health representatives, just under 94% did not report being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“However, no vaccine can prevent all infections and that’s why we see a small percentage of what we call ‘breakthrough’ cases,” Harrist said. “The overwhelming majority of ‘breakthrough’ cases that are identified do not involve serious illness. 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.

The department is recommending people both vaccinated and unvaccinated should wear masks in public indoor settings, especially in areas with high COVID transmission rates.

“Because the Delta variant is essentially like COVID-19 upping its game against us, we have to fight back a little harder for now,” Harrist said.

The COVID vaccines are free and available for any 12 and older.

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Wyoming Department Of Health To Offer At-Home Do-It-Yourself COVID Tests

in News/Coronavirus
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Department of Health will soon offer free, at-home saliva coronavirus tests, state public health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist announced during a news conference on Monday.

She said that the WDH recently signed a contract that would allow the department to offer the free tests for the general public, as well as permit the department to partner with businesses and organizations to offer workplace saliva tests.

“This unique testing service includes online supervision of the sample collection process,” she said. “It’s a new option that adds to the choices available for testing in Wyoming for our residents.”

Next, Harrist said that the state would receive 170,000 rapid coronavirus tests between now and December as part of the distribution of 150 million tests that will be given out across the country from the federal government.

Harrist didn’t give an exact date on when either the saliva or tests would be available, adding more information would be available soon.

Both Harrist and Gov. Gordon said the rapid growth in cases is putting a strain on the state’s hospitals. As of Monday, 36 coronavirus patients are in Wyoming hospitals, the highest number seen since the illness was first detected in Wyoming in mid-March.

“A big and very real worry is for the hospitals to be pushed beyond their limits,” Harrist said. “It is important to remember that many of Wyoming’s hospitals are small, with a limited number of beds for the most seriously ill patients.”

Harrist noted that no restrictions are in place for most activities in the state, now, but urged residents to take the proper precautions as they engage in activities.

“Everything is open in Wyoming right now,” she said. “There’s nothing you can’t do. The key is to be able to do them safely. Take those relatively simple precautions.”

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State Public Health Officer: Social Distancing & Wearing Masks Still Necessary

in News/Coronavirus
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Just because the State of Wyoming will be reducing restrictions on public health orders on Friday that doesn’t mean social distancing and wearing face coverings are a thing of the past, according to the state’s public health officer.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, in a press conference on Wednesday, said she was pleased that the state could lessen some public health safeguards but stressed the need for Wyoming citizens to stay vigilant.

“Social distancing remains critical for now and will for a while to come,” Harrist said. “Keeping our distance from each other helps us slow and limit the spread of this disease so businesses can remain open.”

She said businesses should screen their employees and recommended the continuing use of face coverings.

“Cloth face coverings can also slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus — who don’t know it — from transmitting it to others,” she said.

“The use of these coverings in certain businesses and community situations is clearly described within the revised orders,” Harrist said.

The requirement for employees to wear face masks was something that the owner of a brewery in Sheridan decided not to enforce. That led to the chief of police visiting her establishment on Wednesday evening and threatening to close the restaurant down.

The owner, Tiffany McCormick, subsequently posted an emotional video on Facebook protesting the requirement.  Later, in a Facebook post, she said her employees were all wearing masks because they “didn’t want her to lose her license.”

Harrist also cautioned county health officers to be realistic in applying for further exceptions to the new public health orders.

“I will continue to give every exception request a fair review.  But these new orders make significant changes already to restrictions that we’ve had in place,” Harrist said.

“I don’t want to create an expectation among people that everything they may request will be approved,” she said.

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