State Health Officer Expresses Optimism About Wyoming's COVID-19 Response

Jun 12, 2020

Credit Wyoming Department of Health - State of Wyoming

In early 2020, very few people had ever heard of Dr. Alexia Harrist. Since that time, the State Health officer has become a well-known and important figure as she tries to guide the state through the COVID-19 pandemic. Harrist has lately been opening things up. She told Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck that she's optimistic as the state deals with tourists and other challenges.

Bob Beck: Let's start with just the new orders that, you know, we're continuing to loosen things in the state. Are you comfortable that we can try and do some more things in Wyoming without a lot of risk?

Alexia Harrist: I am. I think that we've been doing a great job, really, since the start of the pandemic, taking social distancing very seriously. And it's because of that, that we have been successful in keeping our case counts relatively low. And of course, our deaths are relatively low. I certainly hate to see that 18 people have died from COVID-19. But we do know that it could have been many more than that.

We're seeing some of our numbers stabilize, including the number of new cases per day, we're seeing the percent of our tests that are testing positive more steadily, which is an indication that we're doing a sufficient amount of testing to detect the cases that are here in Wyoming.

We do have some ability to ease restrictions to allow more types of activities, but it's also really important that people still take social distancing and face coverings seriously, as we are able to do more activities. And so these larger activities, especially that are allowed in the new orders, I think provide some ability to undertake some really important activities for our communities, like rodeos, like parades. But the social distancing within those types of events is going to remain important for a while to come.

Beck: One of the things I've noticed is a lot of people seem to think we survived COVID-19 and now we can move on with our lives. How much does that concern you?

Harrist: It is definitely concerning. You know, there was a theory early on in the pandemic that potentially we would see a slowdown of transmission during the summer months, because sometimes we do see that with respiratory viruses like influenza. I would just have people note that we are continuing to identify cases at a steady rate. In some cases, we are identifying them in geographic areas where we hadn't seen cases for a while. And so I don't think that the virus is going to go away this summer. I think we're going to continue to identify new cases and that precautions are still going to be important.

Beck: Have you noticed a consistent way people are getting this or a consistency in the type of people that are testing positive?

Harrist: I would say that there's a wide variety of ways that people are being exposed and you know, it just really shows that really anybody can get this virus and transmit it on to others. We are seeing the outbreaks in communal settings like nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which we've reported on. And we also have seen some healthcare worker infections, which you do expect in these types of pandemics. But really, people who don't have those types of specific exposures are getting COVID-19, transmitting it within their households or within small groups, workplaces or at family events. I think it's an indicator that even people who don't think that they might have specific exposures are still at risk and that precautions are important.

Beck: So that leads us to the tourist season. What should we be concerned about there? And how prepared are we to handle something that might blow up because of tourists?

Harrist: That's a very good question. And tourism is so important for us, we want people to come see our great state. We have secured some extra testing capacity for areas like Teton County and Park County, where we do expect a lot of tourism because of the national parks. They're trying to make sure we have enough tests to diagnose ill people who may come, or ill people within the community as well. Some enhanced surveillance in those communities to make sure that we are detecting cases early and can implement the control measures that we know to be effective in terms of contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine, so I do think we are prepared for it certainly as a concern.

And in those areas as throughout the state of Wyoming, trying to social distance as much as possible by wearing face coverings are important measures to take.

Beck: The University of Wyoming wants to re-open this fall. I don't know if you've consulted with UW on its plan, but how does that look to you? And do you think there is a good opportunity to open up this year?

Harrist: I did have the opportunity to review the university's plan. I appreciate all the work that went into it. I think it takes into account everything that's important in ensuring that we slow transmission and reduce transmission as much as possible. In terms of social distancing, mask use, having a plan for testing and control measures, if there are cases identified on campus.

I feel that education is an extremely important part of our communities. We need our children to be educated, it's really an essential function. And so I do have high hopes that we can open the schools. That is one thing that the new orders did, and we want to have in-person classes in the fall. I think that is something that we need to really work towards.

Beck: How would that look? What's going to be the best way to do that?

Harrist: It depends on how the outbreak in Wyoming looks at the time. I think that you need measures to reduce exposures to large groups of people as much as possible. So there may be may be strategies to limit mixing between different groups of students, so that if there is a positive case, you're limiting the number of people potentially exposed.

Schools will have to have some flexibility in terms of if we do identify cases, or an outbreak, we may have to take more stringent measures for a while until we get a handle of what's going on and ensuring that proper measures are in place to prevent further transmission. But I do think that there are workable solutions.

I know the schools have been really working hard on planning for what that looks like. There's a statewide working group looking at how K-12 schools can operate in a way that's both safe but provides the essential services that the kids need.

Beck: I assume the Mountain West Conference will have a lot to say about this, but do you anticipate Wyoming football with fans on the stands?

Harrist: I do. How exactly it's going to look is still up in the air, and there are lots of discussions about that. And absolutely, the conference will have a role in that. But my hope is certainly that we can have football and that we can have at least some spectators in the stands.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Bob Beck, at btwo@uwyo.edu.