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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Wyoming Vaccination Rate Plateaus, Endangering Individuals, Society

A person gets a vaccine shot from a nurse
Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton
U.S. Air Force

Wyoming has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country and that doesn't look like it will change. The high number of unvaccinated people in the state has consequences for both individuals and society.

Doctor Sodienye Tetenta is the director of Cheyenne Regional Medical Center's Critical Care Unit. He is one of many intensive care physicians throughout the state that has seen firsthand what a bad case of coronavirus can do to a person.

"In the initial phase, I think the biggest part is the anxiety of realizing that the disease is indeed as bad as they heard," Dr. Tetenta said. "And after the anxiety is the constant struggle for breath. That's difficult to watch. And then, it gets to the point where it becomes unavoidable that they have to go on the life-support machine, and it's usually quite emotional for the family members when the vast majority of them are saying their goodbyes before the patient goes on the machine, and that's rough."

Dr. Tetenta chooses to focus on the ones that eventually pull through. He said those are the cases that keep you going, and there's one thing all those survivors have been saying recently after their brush with death: they regret not getting the vaccine.

But across the state, nearly 70 percent of Wyoming residents are still unvaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines have been deeply politicized and misinformation is rampant on social media.

"I don't want to see people suffer and I don't want to see people die unnecessarily," said Cheyenne Regional's Chief Medical Officer Jeffrey Chapman.

The COVID-19 vaccine is free, and in Wyoming it's now available in every community and to everyone 12 or older.

"The vaccine is very effective at decreasing the number of people who become infected," Chapman said, echoing other public health officials, experts, and most other doctors worldwide. "And again, it's preliminary data, but it suggests that once you're fully vaccinated, the chances of you transmitting it decrease significantly."

He added that side effects to the vaccine are rare, and pale in comparison to the disease's symptoms. Dr. Chapman said Cheyenne residents' reluctance to get vaccinated is being seen in the hospital.

"We are seeing a spike," he said. "We're still not at the levels we were in November or December. But we have 10 people in our ICU and that's very concerning for me. That's been going on for about a week and half and it just keeps edging higher."

To be clear, more Wyomingites are getting vaccinated every day, but the state has basically hit the point at which most of the people who were eager to get vaccinated have been. And those who still haven't are far less eager or flat out don't want the vaccine.

Only about 32 percent of the state population has been fully vaccinated, and officials say it's almost entirely unvaccinated individuals who are now being hospitalized and killed by the coronavirus.

In Casper, Natrona County Public Health Officer and Infectious Disease Specialist Mark Dowell is also seeing a rise in hospitalizations.

"We absolutely have active infection in our community and our county," he said. "Wyoming Medical Center is running anywhere from 8-12 hospitalized patients a day. We always seem to have 1-3 in the ICU."

For most of the pandemic, the majority of hospitalizations and deaths have been among the 65-and-older population. But fewer of them are contracting the virus now because they're twice as likely to be vaccinated.

Dowell said a lot of the patients they see now are in their 40s and 50s.

"The virus is always looking for a host that is not protected," Dowell said. "And since the vaccination rates are low in those age groups in this part of the country, the virus has free reign."

Experts say going unvaccinated in the midst of a pandemic is dangerous for the individual, but it also has ramifications for the community and for the state.

The main threat is the possibility of new variants. As the virus spreads through the unvaccinated population, it's given more chances to mutate into new variants that can spread faster, kill more hosts, or even undermine the defenses offered by the vaccine.

The combination of low vaccination rates and high infection rates also has Dr. Dowell concerned about the fall and winter.

"What's going to happen when people go indoors again and you have a susceptible population and you have variants that are aggressive and more contagious running around the country?" he asked.

The medical community doesn't want to see a repeat of last winter, when statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations exceeded 240 and overwhelmed the state's largest hospitals.

But there is still time to get vaccinated, and while nothing has been announced, there are discussions at the state level of launching some kind of incentive program. Other states have already done this, offering everything from lottery tickets to gift certificates for hunting licenses.

But Dr. Tetenta said there's an even better reason to get vaccinated.

"I would really encourage people to do it for their loved ones," he said. "The biggest gift you can give your loved ones right now is getting the vaccine and sparing them the pain and anguish of watching you fight for every breath."

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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