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

Natrona County Health Officer Says Vaccinations Would Solve Wyoming's COVID-19 Problems

Dominoes falling at stopping at a COVID-19 vaccine
Bastian Weltjen
Adobe Stock

Natrona County has had a tough time with COVID-19 with high numbers of people hospitalized. Meanwhile, only 35 percent of the county has been fully vaccinated. County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell joins Bob Beck to discuss the vaccine and what it might take to turn things around.

Dr. Mark Dowell: You know, I wish I could take magic pixie dust and sprinkle it on the state of Wyoming and have everybody run down to the pharmacy or their county health department and get the vaccine so we can put this in a rearview mirror. But there's a short supply of pixie dust right now, I'm afraid.

Bob Beck: Casper is in an area where people haven't necessarily been rushing to get vaccinations. What are you hearing from people? What's the hesitancy?

MD: I hear everything from the Bill Gates microchip theory that's in the vaccine (and I mean that sincerely was said to me earlier this week), to I don't believe in COVID. They think it's a government conspiracy and does not really exist. Or I hear, this isn't going to hurt me and so what if I get it? And then sometimes I hear the vaccine has not been proven to be safe and therefore I will not take it. And that part of the population that demonstrates these feelings, really breaking through that wall has been very difficult and they are very entrenched in those feelings.

BB: We did an interview with some researchers here at the university a month or so ago and one of the things they cited were a number of things you just talked about, that there's a lot of people that don't think this is real, but in particular, not a big deal. The researchers thought the messaging that might eventually work is if enough people got it and had some catastrophic problems with it and that might at least convince some people to get vaccinations. Is that what it might have to take?

MD: Well, we see some people turn around when they know someone that has been hospitalized with it or they have a friend that got very ill. Yeah, it might take that. It might take the severe illness or even death of people that are well known in this state to wake the population up. I hate to think that. Or we see huge outbreaks in the schools and kids becoming hospitalized because we know that's going on across the country right now. I would hope that it wouldn't have to go that far.

I wish I could take people into Wyoming Medical Center and show them what I saw yesterday. We had 47 people hospitalized, our intensive care unit is full. So our total was 52 people yesterday. And I don't know how you take that away. We've had between 10 and 15 deaths in the last three and a half weeks. I don't know how to get that through, other than continuing to message like this, and hope that people will realize that this is in some ways more aggressive outbreaks than it was last year.

BB: Are the cases worse or are they similar with this new variant?

I wish I could take people into Wyoming Medical Center and show them what I saw yesterday. We had 47 people hospitalized, our intensive care unit is full. So our total was 52 people yesterday. And I don't know how you take that away. We've had between 10 and 15 deaths in the last three and a half weeks. I don't know how to get that through, other than continuing to message like this, and hope that people will realize that this is in some ways more aggressive outbreaks than it was last year.

MD: I think the cases are worse. We are truly seeing younger people hospitalized very ill. The youngest lately is 24-years old. Very few people in their 70s and 80s. That's what we were seeing-- late 60s, 70s and 80s-- last year. Now we're seeing people in their 20s,30s, 40s, 50s. It's more aggressive, faster deterioration, more what we call secondary infections, which means they develop bacterial infection on top of this virus. Yes, it's definitely more aggressive, and it's a lot more contagious.

So the teaching right now in my field is that your chances of being hospitalized are about twice what they were with the original Alpha Variant. And that the contagiousness, if you will, of this variant is ten times what it was last year. So I can drive through Casper, and we have some testing centers, and yesterday, the cars were lined up down the street, just to get tested. And we don't even know what the parents are doing with their kids. Are they willing to get them tested? Do they want to know, so we can have that information, to get a better grasp of what's going on in the schools and what's going on in the community? So that's an entirely different issue as well. Most people getting tested at those testing centers are adults.

BB: Dr. Dowell, I think this is very important to talk about because we're hearing about breakthrough cases. And there might also be that small group out there that says, "Well shoot, the guy getting the vaccine is also getting positive for COVID." I understand that there is a huge difference with the symptoms if you have a breakthrough case. Especially if you've had the vaccine.

MD: First of all, a vaccine doesn't put Teflon protection around your respiratory tree, your nose and your mouth. So the vaccine is not designed to keep you from becoming infected. Because the biology of the virus allows the virus to get in your nasal passages and in your throat. What the vaccine really does is keep you out of the hospital and keep you from dying. And that's to over a 99% probability that neither of those things will happen to you. So yes, you will become infected, if you're not careful, even if you're vaccinated.But the symptoms are mild, they're short lived, they would be like a common cold, maybe with a little fever, maybe last two or three days in most people at the most, many will not have any symptoms. I have bad allergies, I could easily have it and not know it. But in those situations, it goes away, and it's no big deal. Now, the people that we're seeing break through, and those are in the vast minority. So let's say, of 50 people in the hospital right now at Wyoming Medical Center, maybe three or four have breakthrough major infection. So sometimes what happens is you get COVID-19 and you already have bad emphysema and you're already on oxygen. And it tips you over because you have underlying major medical problems. You're living on a very thin fence there and you can fall off of that fence.

That's one group that we're seeing, and they tend to be elderly and very chronically ill. The other group we see are the folks that probably don't make the immune response to the vaccine like I would. And those folks are, for example, some people on chemotherapy for a cancer, or people that have rheumatoid arthritis that maybe are on Humira, or one of those new drugs that change your immune system. When they're on those drugs and they get the vaccine, they may have a partial response instead of a full response. And although the original information says people in their 80s get a good immune response to the vaccine, it's not as good as somebody that's 30, and so they can break through that. But the people that we see are very ill and have a lot of other things going on. I'm not seeing people 30-years old that have been vaccinated, hospitalized, I'm just not seeing that.

BB: As you said, most people might not even know they have COVID. They may be getting caught because they have to take a test for work or something like that.

MD: That's exactly right. Or someone else in their family developed it, or a friend they were hanging out with developed it. But, you know, I could say I have very bad allergies right now, in the summer smoke. I could go get myself tested every few days. I'm very careful out there but I could get tested and I might be positive because sometimes--remember, this is a family of viruses called the corona viruses and they are one of the leading causes of the common cold. So what's happening is that this vaccine is keeping you from getting severely ill, but still may allow you to get what's like a common cold. It's keeping that coronavirus, that COVID-19, mild. So you're converting from the possibility of dying to just getting a mild cold, just like seasonal colds that we get every year.

BB: Last question for you: what's it going to take to get these numbers down? Obviously increasing vaccinations would be one answer to that. Is there anything else out there that you see that could turn the tide?

MD: One would be considering masking in all indoor places, vaccinated or not. That would help a lot. There is no taste in most of the state of Wyoming, for mask mandates. It would help a lot, but I don't think anybody is going there except in a few small or isolated counties such as Teton. Albany's also looking at these things. That's one thing that there's no question that would help. It helped last year tremendously and this virus strain or this variant is more contagious than the other one. So that would help. Another thing that would help would be obviously people getting tested if they're getting sick.But officials have to step to the plate too and and get on board with that and so far, it's variable.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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