Low vaccine rate highlights Wyoming conservative streak
GILLETTE. Wyo. (AP) — As her beloved grandmother’s health declined, Lauren Pfenning’s family insisted that she get a COVID-19 vaccine before paying her a final visit.
She spent over a week researching vaccines on the internet and anguished over the decision during and after 12-hour shifts at her job hauling coal in an open-pit mine near Gillette, Wyoming. Pfenning supports her decision to not get vaccinated. However, her grandmother passed away earlier in the month.
Pfenning is a symbol of the conservative, fiercely independent Wyoming lifestyle. It was the state’s second-least vaccined state, after West Virginia, as of Tuesday. Only 23% of residents in her county have been vaccinated, putting it among the bottom handful of places in America that have not cracked 25% with their COVID-19 immunization rates.
The vaccine hesitancy in Gillette is emblematic of the live-free, mind-your-own-business mentality toward the pandemic that is dominant across conservative America at a time when the delta variant is tearing through unvaccinated communities.
For every 100 people spotted around town in Gillette, the number wearing masks can be counted on one hand. Six people were smoking downtown and all agreed that they were too concerned about the vaccine to risk it. Down the street, a black shirt displayed in a storefront warned, “ATTENTION SNOWFLAKES: THIS IS NOT A SAFE PLACE.”
People bristle at the workplace vaccine mandate being pushed by President Joe Biden. Pfenning immediately responded to questions about workplace vaccine mandates and the possibility of avoiding them with regular virus testing. However, in Gillette it is personal.
The area’s large coal industry has seen a decline over the past decade due to competition from renewable energy, cheap natural gas, and new coal regulations that President Barack Obama imposed — and lifted by Donald Trump — which have triggered fury among residents. It feels like there are always more attacks. At this point, I believe we are just trying to fight back more. Pfenning stated that Wyoming is sick of being pushed around.
All the while, COVID-19 patients have been filling several of Wyoming’s hospitals including the one in Gillette, the state’s third-largest city.
At Campbell County Memorial Hospital, 17 of 27 intensive care and medical-surgical unit patients recently had severe COVID-19, leaving just two beds open while the very worst coronavirus cases got flown to more intensive treatment in neighboring states.
Meanwhile, a local surge — up 34% in a week — drove up COVID-19 cases to almost four times the national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Statewide, more than 96% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated. Yet the daily flow of COVID-19 failed to persuade many Campbell County Memorial Hospital employees to get the vaccine.
Only 39% of the hospital’s workforce is vaccinated, and there are no plans to require or incentivize it, said the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Attila Barabas. Wyoming’s statewide vaccination rate of 41% is well below the national rate of 55%.
” I believe in freedom of choice. It’s an essential aspect of American citizenship. Barabas stated that mandates can sometimes be problematic and cause some pushback.
The doctor vaccinated his patients and their relatives. Barabas stated that ultimately, however, it was a decision you have to make.
Wyoming could soon change its view on vaccine mandates. Wyoming officials have promised to fight Biden’s vaccine mandate. They also talked about using the president’s coronavirus relief fund to compensate businesses for the fines they were subjected to for not complying with the mandate. They are encouraging people to get the jab.
In a television ad showing people line dancing to country music, a woman says she got vaccinated to be able to have “ladies’ night out.” Wyoming has spent $900,000 and plans to spend another $685,000 on such ads, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Striving for balance with COVID-19 policies has whipsawed Republican Gov. Mark Gordon at times. Preparing to impose an unpopular statewide mask mandate last year, Gordon lashed out at people who refused to take steps to control the virus, calling them “knuckleheads.”
This year, as the delta variant brought more death and illness to the state, Gordon promised no mask mandate but said people should get vaccinated “if you’re willing.”
Vaccine resistance during the pandemic reflects a broader dilemma for public health officials in a region where prevailing attitudes cause high smoking and low flu immunization, cancer screening and seat belt use rates, said the department’s interim director, Stefan Johansson. We just have a population that I believe is representative of the Mountain West culture, which, you know., doesn’t always follow the health advice.” Johansson stated.
The decision not to vaccinate was made by Pfenning, a coal mine worker. She believes that the approval process was too fast and that there are too many side effects. Despite the fact that millions have vaccinated and no serious complications, she did so because she believed that Pfenning was wrong.
” It has nothing to do politics. I am very selective about what I give horses and what I give dogs. Pfenning said that we over-vaccinate.
And while Pfenning claimed her decision was not political, politics pervades. In November, Wyoming gave Trump his widest margin of victory of any state, 70%. Campbell County gave Trump his one of his widest margins of victory in Wyoming, 87%.
” The people of Campbell County are so conservative that they say, “Look, I don’t like the government regulating me,”” said Del Shelstad, Campbell County commissioner.
Scott Clem is a pastor at Gillette’s Central Baptist Church. He is one of many city residents who have not been vaccinated. In January, the former Republican legislator held a protest by burning masks at Cheyenne’s Wyoming Capitol. He said that he believes his immune system will protect him.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m vaccinated.” said Clem. “I think that in some ways, it is being a busybody in the affairs of other men. That’s what I believe is some of Wyoming’s sentiment. We’re pretty rugged individuals out here in the West.”
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