The more transmissible variant of COVID-19 originally found in the United Kingdom has not yet been detected in samples tested by the Wyoming Department of Health.
That’s according to Kim Deti, a spokeswoman for the department. She told the News&Guide on Tuesday that the Department can test for the variant.
“The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, which is part of the Wyoming Department of Health, is capable of screening for that variant with what’s called whole genome sequencing,” Deti wrote in an email, adding: “If someone had the variant it wouldn’t cause a problem with our testing to see whether they were positive for COVID-19.”
Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond stressed that, while the variant is thought to be more contagious than earlier strains of COVID-19, it is not thought to be more deadly, and the vaccines currently in distribution are expected to combat the mutation.
“Yes, it’s more transmissible, but it doesn’t cause more severe disease than the current strain,” Pond told the News&Guide on Tuesday.
Pond expected the variant to make its way to Jackson Hole eventually: “We’re more of an international kind of destination. If people come from Europe to Los Angeles and New York, we’ve got direct flights from all of those places. So if it spreads in those areas it’s probably going to come here.”
But, the health official said, the measures people should take to keep themselves safe do not change. Those include wearing masks in public spaces — something that’s mandated by the state and county — washing your hands frequently, distancing from others and and limiting the size of gatherings. Current statewide health orders restrict gatherings to 10 people, with some exceptions. That order is effective through Jan. 8.
Teton County has seen 31 new cases over the past two days: 27 were reported Monday, and four Tuesday. The Wyoming Department of Health was reporting 57 active cases in Teton County by press time Tuesday.
Pond said Jackson Hole largely avoided a post-Thanksgiving surge. Case counts are trending lower, but she cautioned that some of that motion may be artificial because testing numbers are “way down.” She speculated that limited testing hours at St. John’s Health and the holidays in general could have depressed turnout, a trend that could continue with an early closure of testing on New Year’s Eve and closure New Year’s Day.
“If people couldn’t get tested for four days and they’re feeling better, or they might not ever be tested,” Pond said. “We may never know if things were artificially suppressed because of the holiday testing schedule or, in fact, it’s because there’s less cases.”
Free testing will also be available for people visiting Jackson Hole through Jan. 31 through the Vault Health testing program otherwise available for free for all Wyoming residents.
Guests can order a Vault test before they arrive and then test at any point through their stay. If the results are positive and the guests are in-state, they will be required to quarantine in-state and eat the cost. People who test positive after they have already returned home will be asked to assist with contact tracing efforts for their time in Wyoming.
The program is intended to ease visitors’ return trips.
“The initial mission of the testing for visitors is so that people could mitigate their return challenges,” Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, said during the Dec. 18 COVID-19 community update. “But if someone wants to test when they get here, we’re not advocating for that, but certainly they could.”
Pond wasn’t sure how the holiday surge in wintertime tourism would affect Jackson Hole’s COVID-19 numbers: “A lot of people have come for the Christmas holidays to ski and enjoy the winter in Teton County, so I don’t know what that means in terms of people bringing COVID or just more activity at restaurants and places people can gather.”
She advised caution over the New Year’s holidays.
“That’s probably more of a risky holiday given that people like to celebrate together, and it’s not necessarily a family celebration,” Pond said. “Probably mid-January is when we’re going to really know the full extent” — virus-wise — “of Christmas, all the holidays.”