Sublette County faces worst outbreak of COVID-19 with no hospital and vaccine skepticism
Sublette County is situated in northwest Wyoming, covering about 3.2 million acres with a population of about 10,000 people. That is about one square mile per person.
But with this rural region comes complications accessing amenities, like emergency health care.
"We're staffed for like, basically coming in for an occasional emergency," said Jason Ray, physician's assistant at the two Sublette County medical clinics.
There is no hospital — so patients needing extensive care depend on life flights or ambulance rides to the nearest hospitals, sometimes hundreds of miles away.
And right now, the county is experiencing its worst outbreak of COVID yet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates the county at the 'highest' level of COVID transmission — or 'dark red' on the state map.
Ray said the county has not hit the peak yet.
"Three of my patients have died this week from COVID," he said. "And one came in today in respiratory arrest from COVID — taking ivermectin on day eight of COVID — and I put her on a ventilator, she was unresponsive. We flew her to U of U and she's already dead."
With COVID cases ramping up nationwide, there is a hospital bed shortage. Ray said it takes him an average of 90 minutes to find a hospital bed for his patients and that providers have looked as far as Las Vegas. That is because over the last three weeks the main hospitals the county depends on — in Salt Lake City, Idaho Falls, and Jackson Hole — have been at capacity whether it is COVID related or not.
"We literally don't know where to send those patients that just need hospital treatment because the hospitals are full of COVID patients," Ray said.
CDC research has shown that the COVID vaccines are about 89 percent effective against hospitalization. Ray said he personally has only hospitalized one vaccinated patient.
But, COVID vaccinations remain low in Sublette County — with about 29 percent of residents fully vaccinated. Neighboring Teton County is at 76 percent. For comparison, the rate of cases per 100,000 people is 85 in Teton County and 124 in Sublette County.
Sublette County Public Health holds bi-weekly drive-through COVID vaccine clinics in efforts to boost vaccination numbers. They have vaccinated 80 to 90 people a week for the past two months, said Public Health Nurse Manager Stephanie Lund.
"We've had a lot more people positive, and we're really trying to get the word out that EMS is transporting a lot of people to hospitals," she said. "So I think people are paying attention to that and they're protecting themselves right now."
But some dispute the efficacy of the vaccine. Sabine Hawkins is a resident in La Barge — which is south of Sublette county, but it is still her nearest health care option. She said the vaccine has not been studied enough and that local medical providers are not telling the truth.
"I think that they are getting financially compensated and that they are not being honest, and that they should rather focus on therapeutics," she said.
Hawkins is referring to Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine. Hawkins says Ivermectin helped her recover from COVID in the spring.
These drugs have not been tested or approved for treatment of COVID-19. In fact, Physician Assistant Ray said the worst cases of COVID that he has seen have been when someone was self-treating with those options.
Physicians at the county medical clinics said they are not being financially compensated to encourage people to get vaccinated.
Brad Wats, a Sublette County resident, said he does believe the vaccine will lessen one's symptoms, but he feels it is experimental.
"I would rather experience fully what my body wants to go through in order to deal with the virus and to get through it," he said.
Wats had COVID this summer. He said that although it "beat" him up, he does not wish to be vaccinated and there is nothing that could convince him otherwise.
It seems in Sublette County, those who are vaccinated are the silent minority. No residents who are in support of the vaccine that Wyoming Public Radio spoke with were willing to be recorded — some said they fear retribution or that they will lose business.