CASPER – The White House Coronavirus Task Force in late September recommended Wyoming require the use of face masks in counties with significant COVID-19 case numbers and increases in positive test rates, according to a report late last month from that task force to the governor’s office.
But while cases have continued to surge in the state, that task force’s most recent report, dated Sunday, backed off the recommendation to require face coverings.
The Sept. 27 task force report, published Thursday by the Center for Public Integrity, recommends the state require face masks indoors, in public and in commercial spaces in counties considered to be a red, orange or yellow zone.
At the time the report was written, 10 counties, including Natrona County, were categorized as such.
The face mask recommendation was new.
In the previously published report, dated Sept. 20, there is no mention of such a mandate. The previous report did, however, encourage the state to support local mask ordinances.
Teton County is currently the only county in the state with a mask mandate.
In the most recent report from the task force to Gov. Mark Gordon, the language around face masks is less specific.
Rather than recommending a requirement, the task force recommended the “enforcement” of face coverings, though the number of counties in red, orange or yellow zones increased from 10 to 12 in that time.
The color designations are based on new cases and the rate of positive tests.
Red zone counties, as of Sunday, were Albany, Campbell, Converse, Park, Sublette, Goshen and Big Horn counties. Teton and Sheridan counties were orange zones, and Natrona, Lincoln and Platte counties were yellow zones.
Those designations are based on the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, and the percent of recent tests with positive results.
In the time between the Sept. 27 report and the Oct. 4 report, COVID-19 rippled through the White House itself, infecting a number of government officials including President Donald Trump.
The task force reports are sent to governors weekly.
Renny MacKay, Gov. Mark Gordon’s senior policy adviser, said Friday the governor and state health officials take the recommendations into consideration but think of them as one of many perspectives.
“It’s one more consideration,” MacKay said. “We appreciate having one other analysis of the situation,” adding that there are nuances that the White House task force might not be aware of when making its recommendations.
In the nearly two weeks since the Sept. 27 report was written, COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations have continued to surge in Wyoming.
Twenty-two people across the state were hospitalized when the report was written. As of Friday, 54 patients were in Wyoming hospitals with COVID-19.
The governor in a press conference last Monday stressed the need to follow such prevention measures but suggested no forthcoming mandate.
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist has previously told the Star-Tribune more restrictive public health orders are not being considered, but if hospitalizations, hospital capacity or the percent of tests resulting in positive cases hits a fever pitch, they could be.
The task force put Wyoming in a COVID-19 red zone, along with 23 other states.
States in the red zone have more than 101 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the reports.
As of Friday, Wyoming’s rate of cases per 100,000 people over the prior week was 174.
The report wasn’t all negative, however. Wyoming was in the “green zone” for the rate of tests with a positive result statewide, which health providers across the state have said is a key metric to gauge the severity of the pandemic.
But in the last two weeks that number, too, has grown.
On Sept. 27, 4.7% of tests in the previous two weeks had come back positive. As of Friday, that number has risen to 5.01%, according to Wyoming Department of Health data.
The increase would put the state in the yellow zone for the White House task force’s metric.
There are recommendations in the task force’s report the state is seemingly acting on – or is at least somewhat in step with.
The report suggests an expansion of testing. Harrist shared details last week of a forthcoming free, in-home COVID-19 test that would be available to Wyoming residents. Gordon also announced last week he deployed the Wyoming National Guard to assist with contact tracing efforts over the next month.