COVID hospitalizations on rise again

CASPER — After more than two months of declines, Wyoming hospitals are again experiencing a rise in COVID-19 patients, figures compiled by Wyoming Department of Health show.

On Jan. 2, Wyoming hospitals were caring for 56 COVID patients. That number has spiked since then to 104, an increase of nearly 86%.

Hospitalizations remain well below their October peak, when the state's hospitals were at one point treating nearly 250 patients a day. Still, the latest increase is notable, especially as cases, driven by the more omicron variant, surge again in Wyoming.

The state's total number of active cases stood at 7,713 on Thursday. That's up 6,525 from a month ago. 

The omicron variant, which is now the dominate strain here, is driving the latest surge, according to officials at the state's two largest hospitals: Wyoming Medical Center in Casper and Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.

"Based on state and national data and the very fast emergence of the omicron variant in the United States, it's safe to assume that the majority of our current COVID patients have the omicron variant," said Mandy Cepeda, Wyoming Medical Center's director of marketing and public relations. "As cases increase in the community, we expect hospitalizations to continue to increase as well.”

Omicron has proved to be considerably more contagious than earlier strains. Cases have spiked across the globe. But in other places, those spikes, while dramatic, have been short lived.

Nationally, the seven-day average for new cases was hovering at about 120,000 in early December, according to numbers kept by the New York Times. It shot up to 800,000 last week, but that figure has already started to fall. 

"One of the things we are learning about omicron from experience in other countries that have gone before us is that the descent from the peak will also be very rapid," Cepeda said. 

There are also indications omicron produces less severe symptoms. But with cases rising so dramatically, it's still producing an accompanying surge in hospitalizations.

Deaths from the disease have been falling in Wyoming of late. Whether omicron will change that trend remains to be seen. Deaths tend to trail hospitalizations by a few weeks, which in turn trail case trends.

Representatives from both facilities indicated omicron has yet to peak here. That would mirror past variants, which proliferated in other places before taking hold in Wyoming.

"We would expect to see our rise delayed from the national rise, as this is what has happened with prior variants," said Dr. Jeffrey Storey, assistant chief medical officer for Cheyenne Regional. "We are seeing a significant increase in the numbers of our employees testing positive and also within the community and are starting to see our inpatient numbers rise again.”

With hospitalizations still increasing here, officials are again recommending people get vaccinated or boosted against COVID-19. Wyoming remains one of the nation's most vaccine hesitant states, with slightly less than half of the population fully vaccinated.

But those unvaccinated people remain the most likely ones to require serious medical care. At Wyoming Medical Center, more than 80% of the sickest patients are those who have not been inoculated, Cepeda said.