COVID-19 numbers are up

Alexis Barker

Alexis Barker

NLJ News Editor


On Monday, the Wyoming Department of Health reported the first death related to COVID-19 with Weston County totals on the department’s website, although Weston County Public Health Nurse Lori Bickford said she was unable to confirm the death, the specific location of the death, whether the individual was hospitalized prior to death or any other information regarding potential COVID-19 deaths until she received proper notification from the department. That same day, the News Letter Journal received an obituary for Jim Shields reporting a death linked to the illness. 

As the county’s first COVID-19 associated death was reported, the state also reports that Weston County now has a case rate of 290.8 per 100,000 over the past seven days, the highest in the state. Statewide, the rate 94.9 per 100,000 for the same period, according Dr. Sara Thurgood with Monument Health in Newcastle. 

“Just for comparison, Weston County is sitting at just under 300 cases per 100,000 people, which is among the highest rates in the world, currently,” Thurgood explained. “That makes Weston County the highest county for rate of cases in the state – more than double the rate of the next highest county. … There are only three counties in North Dakota with higher case rates than Weston County.” 

She noted that currently North Dakota is currently the worst state in the nation as far as cases go with some counties showing over 400 cases per 100,000. 

“The numbers are in constant flux, but South Dakota, specifically the Black Hills area, which obviously spills over into our part of Wyoming, is vying for that top spot,” Thurgood said. 

As cases continue to climb, so does the death rate, Thurgood said. She reported that, in the past seven days, Wyoming deaths are up 145%, while South Dakota has seen its death rates increase by 90% in the past two weeks. 

“These numbers are constantly changing, obviously. As eastern South Dakota is starting to stabilize with regard to its rate of increase in cases, we’re starting to hit our highest numbers yet. And those numbers are vying with North Dakota in regard to the highest rates in the world for cases,” Thurgood said. “We’ve had several weeks now in the Black Hills counties where test positivity rates have exceeded 40%, and last week there were days when it was over 60%.”

As cases around Newcastle and Weston County climb, the ability to get patients with COVID-19 to facilities that can treat them is becoming increasingly more difficult, according to Newcastle Ambulance Service owner Roger Hespe. 

“Hospitals in the surrounding areas are on divert status. Usually we are taking people to Rapid, Gillette and Casper. Now we are taking them to Lakewood, Colorado, and Billings, Montana,” Hespe said. “The reason we are having to take patients further is because these hospitals are filled with COVID-19 patients.” 

He noted that the local ambulance service has been “slammed” the past few weekends and not just with COVID-19 patients. 

“Don’t get me wrong, though, we are picking up COVID-19 patients in our community and taking them to Weston County Health Services,” Hespe said. “And then we are transporting them to the nearest facility with a bed for them.” 

According to Thurgood, that is the real red flag for Weston County. 

“Regardless of whether or not our patients have COVID-19, if we can’t get our sickest people a hospital bed at higher-level facilities, fatalities are going to increase dramatically,” Thurgood said. “This trend is very concerning. It’s pretty clear Weston County is on a very bad trajectory, and I really worry about what the coming months will bring as we go deeper into winter and flu season.” 

As previously reported by the News Letter Journal, Weston County Health Services does not have the ability to treat long-term COVID-19 patients due to a lack of ventilators and only one negative pressure isolation room. The two ventilators at the facility, according to CEO Maureen Cadwell, are for short-term use only. 

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that the “excess death” rate from COVID-19 among individuals 25 to 44 years old is up 26.5%, she said, death is not the only concern. 

“COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in people 25 to 44 years old. So even though it affects older patients more predictably, younger patients are not spared,” Thurgood said, noting that the unpredictability of the illness and the potential long-term effects in younger patients are concerning. 

“This virus is insidious, and we still don’t know why it affects some one way and for others it’s just a common cold. Until we know how to determine who is ‘truly’ at risk and why, I just assume anyone can be,” Thurgood said. 

As of Monday, the Wyoming Department of Health was reporting 265 confirmed cases in Weston County, 56 probable with 155 of those lab-confirmed cases being active. The “hot spot” COVID-19 map from the New York Times currently shows the cases centering in Newcastle, although Lori Bickford, Weston County’s public health nurse, would not comment on the location of the cases.

Statewide, confirmed cases climbed to 16,442, another 2,800 probable and at least 127 deaths related to the illness.

A total of 2,648 tests have been performed on county residents with 5.17% of those coming back positive since March 1. In that same time, Wyoming has performed 305,408 tests on residents with 5.4% of those coming back positive.

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