February has brought a couple of changes to Wyoming's COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Even with more doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine delivered this month, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist told Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska that the biggest challenge is the state not having enough vaccines.
Alexia Harrist: We all saw that very early that those Pfizer vials were supposed to contain five doses. But in many cases, we're able to get six and sometimes even seven doses out of those vials, which is a fantastic thing. We have seen an increase over time in the amount of vaccines that we're getting each week in Wyoming. We know that the Biden administration announced yesterday that they plan for a five percent increase in the amount of doses that are going out nationally. And it's hard to predict what those increases will look like in the future. We certainly don't expect to see large increases within the upcoming weeks, but we do hope to at least see percentage increases and are very happy to see this 30 percent increase in Moderna coming to us.
Kamila Kudelska: In a recent press release from the Department of Health, it was stressed for people to stay in their local counties to get their vaccines. Has this been a big problem in the state?
AH: We do expect that we're gonna see some differences between counties on where exactly they are in the priority process just because of differences in county population and number of doses. And the county public health offices know best how to make sure that the right people are getting the vaccine the fastest. And so some of the processes are going to differ. But the way we're distributing vaccines throughout the state is really meant to be fair, equitable, make sure that each county is getting enough to cover the populations who need it most and need it first. And so to make it the most fair and equitable, people really should be looking for it in the counties in which they live, in which they work, or if they have a health care provider that they regularly see in a Wyoming county.
KK: I wonder if you can clarify, I feel like a lot of people get confused that only 82 percent of the first doses have been administered, but we're saying that we don't have enough vaccines, why is there this discrepancy in the numbers?
AH: There's a lot of potential reasons, I think. It's very important to remember that we don't want to waste a single dose of these vaccines, and they have certain storage requirements for temperature. Once you take the vaccines out of that storage, you have to administer within a certain amount of time. So you need to make sure all of that is very precise. You have the number of people to be vaccinated exactly match up with the number of doses you have, so you don't have any vaccine that might have to be wasted at the end of the day. So planning is very important, and sometimes it takes a little bit of time. If we're seeing a relatively lower percentage of vaccines being administered, we do reach out to make sure that if there's any assistance we can provide or any resources we can provide to help make vaccination go faster, we do that. We are keeping a very close eye on it. And so all of those factors play into it. And again, trying to balance making sure we're getting it out fast with making sure we're getting it to the right people and not wasting a single dose.
KK: Another new development in February is that the Department of Health added a priority group 1C. Can you say who this group includes?
AH: Sure. And I will add also that we have expanded 1B from what it originally was. So 1B now includes individuals aged 65 or older. It also includes individuals with underlying medical conditions that might make them at higher risk for severe illness or death from COVID. So we made that expansion based on national discussions, based on our priorities of making sure that we're using this vaccine to save as much life and prevent as much severe illness as possible, but also to make sure that there is enough flexibility in our vaccine priorities to be able to continue to get vaccines out as fast as we possibly can. We also announced the groups in 1C. Group 1C contains all those other critical essential workers who aren't included in 1B. That would include those of us who work in government, it includes people who work in manufacturing, hospitality, retail, oil and gas, and it also includes individuals who work in or live in congregate settings. For example, homeless shelters, prisons, other types of group living settings, because we do know that COVID-19 is easily transmitted in those settings. So we do expect that it will be a while and I can't give a precise timeline but it will be awhile before we get to 1C. But we thought it was important for people to understand where they were and the priorities, to start thinking about that.
KK: I feel like a lot of people are wondering where restaurant workers fit in this. When I was going through the new priority group 1C, I understood that they are in that group, would you say that's correct?
AH: To define critical infrastructure workers, we are using the guidance from the United States Department of Homeland Security. They have a document that is what we're working from, and restaurant and food workers are included as essential workers on that list. And restaurant workers will be included in 1C in Wyoming.
KK: So how many Wyomingites do you think need to get vaccinated to feel potentially good about herd immunity in the state?
AH: I think there are a lot of variables. We're hoping, for example, to get additional vaccines. We also, however, know that we're seeing some COVID variants that are more easily spread from one person to another. And we're seeing those in Wyoming. We've detected five of those so far. And when you have a virus that spreads more easily, you need more people to be vaccinated to achieve that herd immunity. So there have been estimates that have been put out there, 70 percent, 80, 85 percent...we just don't have enough information to know what that percentage is right at this moment. But it is likely going to be a relatively high percentage, and it's going to be a while before we get there. So for at least the foreseeable future, the precautions we're asking people to take now will continue to be important.
KK: And so that's even if you've been vaccinated, you should still mask and social distance?
AH: Yes, we're still asking people to do that. Those are still the national recommendations for several reasons. One is, of course, that still a very low percentage of the population is vaccinated in Wyoming and nationally. And so if you are out in public, chances are the majority of the people that you're around will not have been vaccinated. The second is that these vaccines have been studied and are known to be very good at protecting you from getting sick from COVID-19. We still have a little bit more to understand about how they prevent you from transmitting it to somebody else. And so we need more time to better understand that data before we can relax some of the precautions that we're asking people to take.