After a summer with relatively few serious cases of COVID-19, Wyoming's hospitals are full and the death toll is rising. Even the governor and first lady have contracted the coronavirus and it shows no signs of letting up. State Health Officer Doctor Alexia Harrist joined Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck to discuss the virus, face coverings and the vaccine.
Bob Beck: I want to just start off and just talk about something that's very obvious in our state. Right now we're seeing more fatalities than we've ever seen and the numbers don't seem to be getting better. I just thought maybe a great place to start is what's going on? And what's your thoughts on what's happening in the state right now?
Dr. Alexia Harrist: Certainly, we are very concerned about what is happening in the state right now. It is of course heartbreaking to see so many deaths, especially recently, from COVID-19. And that unfortunately comes with having increased transmission levels in our state, which we certainly do right now, as well as increased hospitalizations. We are seeing high levels of transmission really everywhere in the state at this point. And one of the most concerning things that we were seeing is, of course, the increase in hospitalizations. One of our goals during this whole pandemic has been to make sure that we are able to maintain our healthcare capacity so that everybody who needs health care in hospitals, whether it be from COVID, or whether it be from any other condition, is able to access a healthcare provider and able to access the highest level of care. And that's what we're concerned about right now. The main concern for our hospitals seems to be at this point, staffing. That's because of both the volume of patients and because of the number of staff that are out, because of either having been exposed to COVID or actually having COVID. We needed to supplement their staffing to make sure that they can care for all of their patients. So that is something that we're watching very closely, and are concerned about.
BB: One of the things you just said I thought was very interesting. And that's the fact that you're starting to see it show up in so many places. I was gonna tell you maybe a month ago, it looked like the nursing home outbreaks and that kind of thing were really what was driving everything, but you're seeing it all over the place?
AH: Yes, it really is all over the place, there's not a specific location, or really a specific type of activity that you can pinpoint many of the transmission events to at this point. We are seeing it in locations throughout the state. And it is simply the case that really any time that you are gathering with somebody outside of your household or attending events, that does put you at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 because of how prevalent it is. But we also know that there are certainly certain types of activities that pose a higher risk and that's where we're seeing transmission. And those are gatherings of people from multiple households, where we're not seeing precautions taken such as mask use, such as distancing, and staying home when you are having symptoms, even if they're mild symptoms, because that can still be COVID-19. And so those types of gatherings do pose a greater risk.
And it's why we're really asking people and really emphasizing that it's more important than ever to take those simple but very important precautions of trying to distance yourself from others and not gathering with others when you don't have to do it. Wear face coverings and stay home when you're sick.
BB: As you well know there's been a lot of clamor for a statewide mask mandate. So I'm curious, what you think something like that might do for us as a state if you decided to go in that direction?
AH: So the evidence that face masks prevent me, if I had COVID-19 and didn't know it, from spreading it to others is really growing. And we also know that the more people that are wearing masks, especially indoors, especially when it's difficult to maintain and distance from people outside of your households, the more people that are wearing those masks, the more effective that we will be in slowing transmission of this virus. It really is a simple step to take to wear your mask to protect others and we think that that's really important and want as many people to be wearing masks indoors, when they're around people who are not in their households as much as possible.
We are certainly very happy to see that 16 of our 23 counties have had those mask orders in place for those specific types of situations. And I do think that those have resulted in increased mask use in those areas. And we are working on extending those county orders right now to make sure that they continue to be in place.
There really should be no question right now about how the Department of Health feels about face masks. People should be wearing them. And it helps our communities, it helps our businesses stay open, it helps our schools stay open, if we can wear face coverings in those situations.
I think it's also important to remember though, that we need to use face coverings in conjunction with those other measures that I talked about. So even with face coverings, still limiting gatherings is important. Still maintaining physical distancing is important. And probably the most important of all is staying home when you feel sick.
BB: Is there going to be an appropriate time to go back and revisit closures of any sort?
AH: We are always considering whether we need more restrictive measures such as closures. Obviously, we know that closures have a big impact on people, their ability to have a job, their ability to operate their business. And so we obviously would prefer to do other things, like having people wear face coverings which can help prevent those types of closures. But at the same time everything is on the table. And as always we will make the decisions based on the data that we're seeing.
BB: I wanted to go back and follow up. Do you anticipate calling for a state mask mandate? Or are you leaving that up to the communities?
AH: So the governor has spoken about his desire for having local control as much as possible and that's the situation where we are now. But again everything is on the table and if we feel that a statewide mask order is needed. That is certainly something that we will consider.
BB: Are you surprised how overwhelmed the hospitals have gotten?
AH: I wouldn't say I'm surprised. I think because of the steps that we took as a state early on in this pandemic, we were successful in slowing transmission, which I think was very important in essentially buying us some time to be more prepared for this situation. We were able to acquire and make sure we had enough supplies of that personal protective equipment that health care providers need. We were able to make sure we have enough testing so that anyone with symptoms, any close contacts, and now really anybody in the state can get tested if they'd like to. Health care providers are certainly much more familiar now with treating COVID patients, which I think is important. And of course, we are closer to a vaccine now than we were in the spring and summer.
But we were able to observe other places that saw high levels of transmission earlier than we did. And so we knew that the more cases we would see, that more hospitalizations would be required. So unfortunately, we can predict or expect that if we can continue to see increasing transmission in our communities, we will continue to see increasing hospitalizations and deaths.
BB: What do things look like to you as we head into the next two or three months?
AH: So I think people should be very hopeful about the vaccine. The news that we're hearing about the effectiveness of the vaccine is very promising. And I really think that we are able to look at that as a light at the end of a tunnel, we have an end in sight at this point, which was not true for many months during this pandemic. We have what we think is going to be an effective vaccine. But in the meantime, if we can sort of hunker down and take these precautions for a few more months, we are going to be able to prevent deaths as we wait for the vaccine to be widely available in the community.
BB: 42% of people polled say they don't want to take a vaccine. How do you overcome that?
AH: Yeah, I think it's important to note that while certainly that process of making this vaccine available in the United States is faster than the usual processes for making vaccines available, it is still very rigorous. Health officials at both the Food and Drug Administration and an independent panel of scientists will be carefully reviewing all of the data that are available for these vaccines before they authorize its use, and before they recommend its use. And so these vaccines will be studied and the data will be reviewed before they're available. And I think it's important for people to understand that process and that that process ensures that we will have as safe a vaccine as possible.
BB: Do you anticipate following the federal guidelines and providing the vaccine to health care workers and some of the elderly population first?
AH: Yes, we do plan on following those guidelines from the independent panel of scientists that advises the CDC in terms of the order in which we will provide vaccinations when we have a limited supply of vaccines. And so, those health care providers that are caring for patients and those individuals who are more at risk for bad outcomes will be top on our list for the vaccine.
BB: And when do you think the average person might get a shot at some of this?
AH: It won't be right away, we will have to wait some time until the vaccines are produced in an amount that they're really available for the general public. So I think we still need to have some patience and be prepared to wait a number of months until we arrive at that point.