CASPER – By the time Wyoming hit its COVID-19 hospitalization peak last November, nearly 250 people were being treated for the virus statewide. The physicians who were caring for them were largely working without days off, filling in for colleagues who had either tested positive or been exposed to the virus themselves.
Then, cases began to fall. Gov. Mark Gordon approved a statewide mask requirement in mid-December, which the state’s top infectious disease experts later credited with the sharp decline.
By mid-March, fewer than 10 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across Wyoming, but those low figures didn’t hold.
Now, 130 people are hospitalized statewide, and the numbers are rising nearly every day. The influx of new cases is straining health care staff across the state, and hospital administrators say finding enough people to fill the holes is getting difficult as the virus again surges nationwide.
In addition to rising admissions, the state’s hospitals are also now experiencing increases in emergency department visits related to COVID-19.
The number of weekly virus-related emergency visits at Wyoming Medical Center, for example, has increased each of the last five weeks.
During the week of Aug. 8, the hospital reported 132 virus-related emergency department visits. A month prior, it reported just 43 visits, according to federal data.
Five Wyoming hospitals in the last four days reported a critical staffing shortage to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to federal data. Four hospitals said they anticipate a shortage within the next week.
The federal data does not identify which facilities reported the shortages, but the figures align with what several hospital officials across the state are seeing.
The state’s two largest hospitals — Wyoming Medical Center and Cheyenne Regional Medical Center — have each had between 12-to-16 percent of their beds occupied by virus patients this week. Both say the number of employees calling out because of a positive test or exposure is on the rise.
“As the prevalence of COVID rises in the community, we have seen an increase in staff who have called out sick due to COVID illness or exposure. We are bringing in travel nurses to help with the staffing burden,” Wyoming Medical Center spokesperson Mandy Cepeda said via email. “However, as Wyoming’s COVID cases surge, so do cases in surrounding states and across the country, and staffing resources are in high demand everywhere.”
At least 30 Wyoming Medical Center employees were not at work because of the virus, Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell told the county’s board of health Thursday. Thirty-five people were admitted to Casper’s hospital for COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, according to state data.
Cheyenne was treating 26 virus patients. Tracy Garcia, chief nursing officer for the Cheyenne hospital, said staffing has been a concern there as well.
The hospital has not needed to create overflow spaces for virus patients as it did during the fall and winter.
“Like the rest of the country, we are struggling with staffing and are using agency staff for nursing and respiratory therapy,” she said.
She added there have been a few days where elective procedures were rescheduled, but it hasn’t been a trend.
The state’s largest facilities aren’t the only ones feeling the pressure.
Ten percent of Sheridan Memorial Hospital’s beds were occupied by a COVID-19 patient Thursday, according to state data.
Dr. John Addlesperger, the facility’s chief medical officer, said the hospital has again created isolation areas for virus patients in anticipation of a continued surge, but ensuring there are enough people to care for the rising case load is the real frustration.
“We currently have the resources we need today. Unfortunately, we do not know when this surge will taper off.
“This time around we are in a better position with PPE and ventilators,” Addlesperger said via email. “Staffing continues to be our primary concern as well as the ability to transfer patients, as this surge is affecting all of us in the region.”
Wyoming Medical Center, which was acquired by Banner Health in October, hopes to serve as a transfer center for several of the state’s critical access hospitals — three of which are already part of Banner’s network.
The hospital’s CEO Lance Porter has reiterated this goal several times, including to the Casper Rotary Club in May.
Cepeda could not say how many of Casper’s 35 virus patients Thursday were transferred from other locations, but she said the hospital is caring for patients from across Wyoming and “sometimes from other states.”
The more contagious delta strain of the novel coronavirus is driving the surge, and likely more severe infections across the U.S. The majority of these cases are among the unvaccinated, according to state and federal data.
Just under 95 percent of those recently hospitalized for COVID-19 in Wyoming were unvaccinated, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
But vaccinated people can still contract the illness, and can still spread it.
This discovery led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late July to recommend everyone in areas with substantial to high transmission begin wearing face masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Wyoming State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist has issued similar guidance.
Gov. Mark Gordon declared Monday that his office would not issue any mandates or lockdowns, deferring those decisions instead to local and federal officials.