Will Smith, an emergency room doctor in Jackson, gets jabbed with a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Although most counties in Wyoming are vaccinating more people on the state’s priority list, some say progress with the COVID-19 inoculation has been too slow. 

In Sublette County, public health officials had administered 160 doses by Monday. They plan to administer the county’s remaining 140 doses this week, according to Sublette County Public Health Nurse Manager Janna Lee. The county is scheduled to receive 100 new doses from the state each week for the next few weeks, she said. 

Asked whether the county could vaccinate faster if given more doses, Lee said “Yes, we could.

“No federal plan for this has been the biggest challenge,” Lee said.

Wyoming’s COVID-19 vaccination rate of 2.25% of the state population lags behind all surrounding states except Utah and Idaho, according to a Wall Street Journal interactive map using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Idaho ranks lowest in the region, at 1.94%, while South Dakota’s vaccination rate ranks highest in the region at 5.45%. 

What appears to be a slow start to COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Wyoming should soon accelerate, however, Wyoming Department of Health spokesperson Kim Deti said. Wyoming’s first batches of vaccines began to arrive just before the holidays, and that complicated initial rollout efforts

“The pace of doses administered is quickly growing and we expect it will continue to do so,” Deti said.

Of the total 32,600 doses sent to Wyoming since mid-December, an estimated 16,402 (50%) had been administered as of Monday, according to state figures. That includes 14,257 first doses and 2,145 second doses. That’s an 11 percentage point increase from late last week

Deti said there’s up to a 72-hour delay in reporting administered doses. Also, the state’s accounting doesn’t include doses administered to VA patients and residents living on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Timing ‘could not have been worse’

Vaccination administrations vary county-by-county. In Campbell County, as of Jan. 7 — the latest data available — just 550 of 2,450 vaccine doses (22%) had been administered, according to Campbell County Public Health spokesperson Ivy McGowan-Castleberry. 

“If you look at the number of doses administered versus doses received, that might seem alarming,” McGowan-Castleberry said.

This graph shows the top 15 groups Wyoming has prioritized in phase 1a of its vaccination rollout. Not shown are pharmacy staff and ancillary healthcare facility staff who have regular exposure to potentially positive COVID-19 patients or infectious material. (Wyoming DOH)

However, the pace is quickly increasing, and local public health officials are hearing from more people inquiring about where they fall in the priority list and how to schedule an appointment, McGowan-Castleberry said. She attributed the slow rollout and quickening pace to the holiday season and people just now returning to their normal schedules. 

“The timing for beginning vaccinations could not have been worse, right before the holiday season,” she said.

For up-to-date information on vaccine availability in each county, visit this page within the Wyoming Department of Health’s COVID-19 website.

Even if the rate of vaccination speeds up, Deti said, it’s important to keep in mind that supply is limited. 

“The state is unable to order ‘more’ vaccines,” Deti said. “The available doses are limited across the county. More will become available as manufacturing increases and perhaps as additional vaccines are authorized. But for now, what we can order is set at the federal level.

“We want people to understand that administering doses of these vaccines is not as simple as just opening a box and handing something out,” Deti said. “There are unique challenges such as cold storage requirements and timing and other details about doses within vials and other issues to be planned for so that nothing is wasted.”

Wind River Reservation

It took a 10-hour road trip to Belmont, Montana to acquire the first batch of 150 doses made available to residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation. That’s because the reservation’s COVID-19 vaccine effort is administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Rocky Mountain Region, headquartered in Montana

The first person on the reservation to receive a vaccine was George Moss, a ceremonial elder of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

The reservation received a second batch of 900 vaccinations, and demand for vaccinations is strong, Wind River Family and Community Healthcare spokeswoman Lisa Yawakia said. As of Jan. 5 — the most recent data available — there were only 200 doses left, and most of those are expected to be administered this week.

“The Wind River Reservation was hit pretty hard with COVID-19, so the response has been very very strong,” Yawakia said. The novel coronavirus infected Native American communities deeply and they have suffered nearly twice the mortality rate of other communities. 

Health workers unpack a Pfizer transport box in Wyoming. (Wyoming DOH)

Transportation emerged as the biggest challenge in getting the vaccine to elders and those non-healthcare people with underlying conditions who are high on the priority list, Yawakia said. 

“If we could do something to help with that, that would be great,” she  said. 

Testing is still a very high priority, Yawakia said. “Even with the vaccination available, we must remember to maintain those precautions so we ourselves don’t get sick and those we love and care for don’t get sick, so we get through this together.”

Continual assessments

State and county health officials continually assess the vaccine prioritization strategy, Deti said. They are fielding a flood of inquiries from people and businesses asking about where they fall on the prioritization list. Some inquiries seek to modify the ranking. 

“We have heard from many groups encouraging priority group consideration, as has the governor’s office,” Deti said. “I will say many are asking questions about where they will fall more than pushing for ‘higher prioritization.’”

One example, however, might be University of Wyoming educators; that population is not currently included with K-12 teachers and support staff.

The University hopes to change that ranking to include educators, according to a Jan. 8 memo to UW employees by Interim Provost Anne Alexander.

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Meantime, the university is working in coordination with Albany County Public Health in planning, scheduling and administering vaccinations to people both on and off campus throughout the county, university spokesman Chad Baldwin said.

Social distancing, face coverings when necessary and good hygiene remain a priority, Deti said. When the virus is more active it is more difficult for healthcare workers to get vaccines to the public, she added.

“One way people can help is to follow our public health orders and our key recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Deti said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the University of Wyoming hopes to amend the ranking priority of its educators. – Ed. 

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. If any of the folks who are eligible for vaccines in Phase 1 don’t want them, can they be distributed to everyday people who do?

  2. My wife and I are Wyoming residents but are snowbirding in Utah until April. When and how can we sign up for COVID vaccine shots? We are both over 80 years old.