Rising COVID-19 cases and an increasingly prevalent delta variant have raised the antennae of public health officials, who are considering how to react.
New cases in the U.S. have risen to a seven-day average of around 56,000 a day, up from a mid-June low of just over 11,000 per day. That’s still well below last winter’s rates, which eclipsed a quarter million cases a day at one point.
Even so, health officials are wary of the delta variant, which makes up 83% of new cases around the country. The delta variant is thought to be about 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant (B.1.1.7), which is about 50% more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain. According to the Wyoming Department of Health, delta is the dominant coronavirus strain in the state.
“I think it bears some discussion in this group about how we are going to manage this,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said Tuesday at the Board of Health meeting.
Teton County’s cases remain much lower than during the fall and winter spikes, but cases have increased 77% in the past two weeks. Six cases are being reported each day, according to a database managed by The New York Times.
The test positivity rate, a measure of testing capacity, is about 3%, which means the county still has enough capacity to catch cases. But the Teton County Health Department significantly pared down its contact tracing capability when cases dropped earlier this year.
Even though Teton County has one of the higher vaccination rates in the country and has consistently been the most-vaccinated county in Wyoming, The New York Times rates it as “very high risk for unvaccinated people.”
With all that in mind, some Board of Health members asked whether mask mandates would again be appropriate. Prior to vaccines receiving emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, masks and social distancing were the strongest tools available.
Now Riddell thinks vaccines are best.
“I think vaccines continue to be the No. 1 priority, and I think they’re our most effective tool,” he said. “If we see the numbers increase I think it’s worth considering a multilayered approach, as we used before vaccines.”
Implementing a mask order would be different than in the past. The Wyoming Legislature passed laws giving power over emergency health orders to local elected officials, rather than State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, who approved county-level orders.
Were Riddell to move forward on another indoor mask requirement, he said, it would need approval from Teton County commissioners to remain in place longer than 10 days. He did not indicate at Tuesday’s meeting that he was planning to go that route in the near future.
On Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control updated its guidelines to recommend wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status, in indoor public spaces in communities where COVID-19 is surging.