Wyoming holding course despite lagging vaccination rate

Wyoming’s Covid-19 vaccination rate remains among the lowest in the nation, yet the state has declined to set quantifiable goals, offer incentives or otherwise modify its approach to address the underperformance. 

Almost half of the national population has received at least one Covid-19 vaccination shot, with just less than 40-percent being fully vaccinated. The highest vaccination rates in the nation are in the northeast and New England.

Vermont, the second least populous state behind Wyoming, is approaching its goal of vaccinating 80 percent of the population before the governor lifts all Covid-19 restrictions. As of May 24, only 28.6 percent of Wyomingites were fully vaccinated. 

The rates vary in Wyoming’s 26 counties, with the lowest, Campbell County, at 15.9 percent. The highest rate is in Teton County with 58.6 percent of its population vaccinated as of May 26. 

There are a lot of reasons for that disparity, Kim Deti, spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Health, said. One of the most difficult obstacles, Deti said, is the politicization of Covid-19. 

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality that we do face,” Deti said.

As such, any efforts to increase the vaccination rate also raise political questions. 

Even taking the position that people should get vaccinated has political consequences, Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said. Overall, Rothfuss said Wyoming has come up short in encouraging its residents to be vaccinated.

“It would be nice if there was a common uniform message from the executive branch, from the Legislature, from all of the government agencies across the state,” Rothfuss said. “I’ve been disappointed in our efforts, in our messaging.” 

The executive branch has said consistently that the vaccine is safe and effective, but also that it is a personal health decision whether to receive it.

Other elected officials, such as Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, believe the low vaccination rate is not a problem. For McKeown, who said he has no plans to be vaccinated against Covid-19, inconsistent messaging from the federal government makes it an unreliable source of information regarding the Covid-19 vaccine.

“I don’t know the exact effectiveness of the vaccine, and I believe nobody does,” McKeown said. “I think it’s still yet to be determined.”  

The Covid-19 vaccines were evaluated in tens of thousands of clinical trials, meeting rigorous standards for safety and effectiveness and approval for emergency use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 285 million doses were administered between December 14 and May 24, rarely resulting in any serious safety problems. 

A recent national survey from the Surgo Foundation found that Wyoming has the third-highest proportion of Covid-19 skeptics in the nation. The health department has done what it can to make sure accurate information is available and to encourage participation, Deti said. 

“At the basic level it is a personal choice, but it does affect more than you and your own personal health,” she said.

In the current environment, Rothfuss said, there are difficulties in convincing people that it is the right thing for a community to decide to be vaccinated. 

“It’s hard to undo the many months of inaccurate messaging or less than accurate messaging that we’ve put forward so far,” he said.

Unlike Vermont, Wyoming has no set goal for its vaccination rate. 

Deti said it is the goal of Wyoming’s state government to have as many people vaccinated as possible, but that establishing a goal with policy implications has never been part of the plan. 

“We want everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated because what our goal is is to keep people from getting ill, and to particularly prevent those hospitalizations and serious illnesses, and the deaths,” she said.

As of May 26, Wyoming has seen 719 deaths related to Covid-19, 50,556 confirmed cases and 9,405 probable cases of the disease. Covid-19 was the third leading cause of death in Wyoming in 2020, behind only heart disease and cancer. 

In looking to increase their Covid-19 vaccination rates, some states, such as Ohio, are offering cash incentives. (An official from the Ohio Department of Health declined to be interviewed for this report.) 

The federal government recently gave the OK to states to use money from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan relief package for cash incentive programs. 

For Wyoming, incentives are being considered, but that remains in the idea stage.  

“There have been preliminary discussions about incentive programs, but (we) haven’t identified any specific ideas yet,” Michael Pearlman, Gov. Mark Gordon’s communication director, said in an email. 

McKeown, one of the Wyoming Senate’s more conservative members, said offering incentives would in fact compromise personal choice.

“It’s the government bribing people to take a shot when it should be their choice,” McKeown said. “They should educate themselves and figure out whether they need it or not, or whether they believe in it or not.”

Teton County has set a goal of vaccinating 80 percent of its population by July 4. Jodie Pond, the county’s director of health, said there’s been a high level of interest in being vaccinated. But to help meet that goal, Pond said, Teton County is partnering with the private sector to offer incentives such as jackets and hotel gift cards. At this point, no public funds are being spent on those incentives.

“We know there’s been interest in other parts of the country where they’ve done raffles,” Pond said. “We don’t have what Ohio did, but we’ve got some great prizes coming.”

Incentives offered in other states have varied — West Virginia is offering $100 cash bonds, adults in New Jersey and Connecticut can get a free beer. A recent Morning Consult poll found that three-fifths of unvaccinated adults say a large financial incentive would sway them to get a Covid-19 vaccination shot. Of those surveyed, 57 percent of unvaccinated adults said a $1,000 savings bond would sway them to get a COVID-19 shot, and 43% said the same about a smaller $50 reward.

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