Delta variant as deadly to Wyoming as initial surge; Teton County health officials credit masks, vaccines for keeping death rate lower during delta wave

JACKSON — Call it a saddle or a roller coaster, COVID-19 death data in Wyoming paint a startling picture: Despite the widespread availability of vaccines, the Cowboy State lost as many residents to coronavirus this fall as it did during last winter’s deadly surge.

“Looking at the last surge and the delta variant surge, the curves are nearly identical,” Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin told the News&Guide on Monday. “They’re the same height, they’re the same slope, the same breadth. But I think there’s been a definite change in the public’s attitude towards this.”

For Billin that shift is one of apathy, avoidance and a desire to move on, even as health care workers battling the virus remain in the trenches.

While Teton County has also seen a wave of infections fueled by the delta variant, it hasn’t experienced the same rate of fatality as surrounding counties.

Park County has roughly the same size population as Teton County but seven times as many COVID-related deaths. 

Currently, the Wyoming Department of Health dashboard lists 98 Park County deaths, and Billin knew of two new unconfirmed mortalities that will bring the county to 100.

Part of the loss can be attributed to the county’s high number of elderly residents – about 24 percent of the county’s population is over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, versus about 16 percent in Teton County. The average age for COVID deaths in Park County is 78, Billin said.

A majority of Park County residents also lack the protection of vaccination. Six in 10 Park County residents are unvaccinated against the coronavirus, despite comprehensive efforts by the public health department to promote and administer the three U.S.-approved COVID-19 vaccines.

Billin attributes vaccine refusal to misinformation spread online and in social circles. 

Residents also aren’t masking; the health officer hasn’t implemented a 10-day mandate because he knows there isn’t political willpower to extend it. 

This September, Park County schools elected to return students to classrooms without masks, even as Cody Regional Health implemented crisis standards of care. Billin’s appeal to school leaders appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

“Unfortunately, people are no longer taking the steps to protect the vulnerable, if they ever were,” Billin told the News&Guide. “People are just tired and over it.”

Meanwhile, COVID is close to becoming the leading cause of death in Wyoming, surpassing heart disease and cancer. Since September 2020, 1,300 Wyoming residents have died from the virus. That’s one out of every 460 residents.

During a four-week period from Sept. 20 to Oct. 17,  AARP reported that Wyoming had the second-highest rate of nursing home resident deaths due to COVID in the nation, with 1.53 deaths per 100 nursing home residents. Montana had the nation’s highest rate at 1.72 COVID deaths per 100 nursing home residents. They were the only two states with rates higher than .62 during that time, AARP’s nursing home dashboard showed.

Because deaths trail infections, the health officer doesn’t expect that rate to decline until mid-December.

Teton County residents have fared considerably better than the rest of the state in surviving the virus. Since the onset of the pandemic, 14 have lost their lives to COVID-19. During the delta surge, three Teton County residents died of the virus.

“That’s one of the statistics we looked at to show that mask wearing and people being vaccinated is working,” Public Health Response Coordinator Rachael Wheeler said Monday. “We have more preventative measures in place than the rest of the state.”

Wheeler said that’s also a reflection of community will in Jackson rather than any specific efforts by the local health department.

“Other counties are working really hard to get their community vaccinated,” Wheeler said. “They’re doing all the same things we’re doing.”

The one exception is mandating mask wearing, which, again, comes down to political willpower.

As Jackson and communities across the country debate pandemic exit strategies, the question remains: Are we comfortable with such frequency of death?

“We’re still seeing 1,000 people dying a day from this virus,” Dr. Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The New York Times this month. “It’s not just a matter of comfort and ease — I mean, this is a matter of life or death for many people.”

Beyond the charts documenting the impact of the delta surge, there are families left without loved ones, businesses left without leaders and communities left grieving, even as they continue to sow distrust in solutions. Not everyone in Teton or Park County will know the lives that were lost to the pandemic, but those who treated them in their final moments know their stories.

Billin remembers Park County’s youngest COVID victim, a 34-year-old father of five with no major risk factors. Statewide, 10 people younger than 29 have died from the virus.

On Nov. 19, Sublette County reported its 22nd COVID death and Sublette County Public Health offered “their heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the deceased,” on Facebook.