COVID-19 vaccines

Teton County Public Health registered nurse Jhala French, right, fills syringes with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 in late December. Because of how long it will take to vaccinate people, public health officials say COVID-19 precautions must still be followed to avoid overwhelming hospital resources.

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Teton County is back to setting coronavirus records.

Following several weeks between mid-November and Christmas in which caseloads in the community dipped significantly, a post-holiday surge has pushed the number of active cases to 247 as of Tuesday, the highest number yet. Surging cases have overwhelmed the capacity of health officials to pinpoint the cause.

“We are, again, overrun in our contact tracing efforts,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said Tuesday. “Therefore I don’t have complete data, in which to point to any one particular thing.”

Before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, officials repeated a message that seemed to have an effect before Thanksgiving: Only interact with people from your household. If you planned on seeing family or friends you don’t live with, they said, you should all quarantine beforehand and be tested.

Though that messaging correlated with a drop in cases, the success doesn’t appear to have carried over into the winter holidays. Cases have surged so quickly, with at least two days of 60 or more new infections, that county staff have been unable to keep up.

The Wyoming Department of Health reported 43 new local cases in the past 24 hours, a day after it reported 96 new cases, a record in Teton County. Other coronavirus markers are also climbing. Teton County’s test positivity rate in the past two weeks is 9.55%. Health officials have said they like to see that number below 5%.

The seven-day rate of new cases increased 179% over the past week to 35 a day, or 151 per 100,000 people, according to a database maintained by The New York Times.

Above 30 or so new cases a day, Health Department staff are unable to call sick people to direct their self-isolation period. On top of that, contact tracing is basically put on hold, so unless infectious people notify their own contacts, people who are exposed to the virus won’t know.

“Without contact tracing and issuing quarantine and isolation orders, that is worrisome, because then you’re not bringing that infection rate down,” Pond said.

Health Department staff may need several days to go through the backlog of cases, so people who are sick might not hear from them right away. Seeing the recent growth in cases, Pond worries public health officials have few tools to tamp down the spread.

Because the state has public health orders in place, like those that mandate mask wearing or limit the number of people at a gathering, she said, the county is hamstrung. Variances to state orders can be requested, but previous attempts to enact stricter local rules have taken weeks to be approved, or never went into effect.

Barring new, stricter measures or the ability to resume contact tracing, pleas for personal responsibility are all that are left. As in previous surges, one worry is that the rise in cases will create an increase in hospitalizations.

Though hospital resources are not yet stretched thin the numbers aren’t encouraging. On Jan. 4 St. John’s Health had three hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Two days later it had six; by Friday it had eight; and Tuesday it had 11.

“I don’t like that,” CEO Dr. Paul Beaupre said. “That’s not a real sustainable progression.”

COVID-19 patients at St. John’s are likely to increase, Beaupre said, because hospitalizations lag infections by two weeks or so. Without the ability to investigate new infections and their contacts, health officials say, it’s tough to know where the surge is coming from. At Friday’s community update, Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said school sports like basketball, family gatherings over the holidays and kids having more unstructured time over winter break were likely culprits.

In the first week back from winter break, 126 students were absent Thursday due to COVID-19, though district data doesn’t break those down into positive cases and close contacts. However, Riddell reported that teens were overrepresented in the latest cases, which may suggest social movement and viral exposure among teens increased over the break.

To that list of sources of growth, Pond added seasonal workers. Just like in the summer, younger workers who live in congregate housing, work in tourism or ride the START bus to work may have more potential for exposure.

Though the growth over the summer was large at the time, the newest spike dwarfs it. Herd immunity from vaccination is likely the only thing that will truly allow officials to get a handle on things, Pond said, but reaching that threshold could take months because of how slow the rollout has been.

Pond hopes people will heed messages of caution, and if trends continue she thinks people might start to adhere to the recommendations again.

“When the hospital gets overrun again people might start to take us seriously,” Pond said.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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