Cheyenne/Laramie County Health Department registered nurse Valencia Bautista administers the new COVID-19 vaccine to registered nurse Terry Thayn on Dec. 15, 2020, in Cheyenne. Thayn is the first person in the state to receive the newly approved vaccine. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

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% 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% of the population before the governor lifts all COVID-19 restrictions. As of May 24, only 28.6% of Wyomingites were fully vaccinated. 

The rates vary in Wyoming’s 26 counties, with the lowest, Campbell County, at 15.9%. The highest rate is in Teton County with 58.6% 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. 

Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“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. 

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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.

Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, speaks during the 66th Wyoming Legislature’s general session Thursday, March 11, 2021, in the Senate chamber inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

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. 

Incentives

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% 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.

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)

“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% 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.

This story is supported by a grant through Wyoming’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the National Science Foundation.

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  1. As reported by local and national news outlets, Wyoming is within the bottom four – by some tallies, last – among the states in percentage of residents fully immunized against COVID-19. Fewer than 1/3 of all Wyoming residents, and only about 3/4 of vulnerable seniors, have gotten both shots. As the vaccines are being approved for children, our record of protecting them is shaping up to be similarly poor. Wyoming’s rate of new infections per capita – especially in counties such as Laramie County where the new Delta variant is spreading rapidly – is higher than it was last summer, before any vaccine was available, indicating that our rate of vaccination is too low to have had any effect at all on the pandemic in our state.

    This has potentially dire consequences not only for the health and safety of our citizens but for tourism and related industries, upon which our state is relying to shore up tax revenues in the face of declining energy royalties.

    If anything, Wyoming should be doubling down on immunization requirements to ensure that our people and businesses stay healthy, and to prevent our state from being perceived – as it is starting to be – as backward, ignorant, anti-science, and gullible, having fallen prey to lies peddled by disinformation outlets or via social media.

    What’s worse, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Interim Labor Committee has just passed out a bill which would prohibit employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated. This is absurd, especially for science-based businesses like my own (I am a wireless Internet service provider who uses microwave technology to deliver Internet). If a person denies science, he or she is absolutely not qualified to work for my company – and yet the Legislature is proposing to deny me the right to use this rational criterion to make employment decisions! Absurd and harmful.

  2. It is not a political issue, it is a public health issue. Covid vaccines are not experimental drugs, the are a highly tested and researched group of necessary public health measures. Yet so many Wyomingites have opted to deny the highly rigorous scientific evidence and listened to a plethora of misinformation that our state is now at risk, and I personally am at risk due to the lack of concern for others on the part of those who remain unwilling to accept the reality of covid 19 and the danger it poses to all of us. I find it very frustrating.

    1. Daryle:

      “Covid vaccines are not experimental drugs, they are a highly tested and researched.”

      Hardly.

      Latest news from CNN suggests that Milions of Americans who take immunosuppressive drugs and get the vaccine might not be protected at all…

      And side effects have been reported from blood clots to heart inflamation (rare in both cases). One can’t say that something is risk-free, safe, and effective, well researched, highly tested, and not experimental when the FDA has yet to give formal full approval for any of the drugs.

      What you read on WyoFile and elsewhere may suggest otherwise but you clearly haven’t been reading enough.

      Should you get the vaccine? Most likely but ask your doctor.

  3. We traveled to New Mexico this spring, and the difference in their state-level COVID response was notable. State leadership matters. It has saved lives in New Mexico, kept businesses open, and is reassuring to tourists considering where to drop their dollars. As a result New Mexico has one of the highest vaccination rates in the US. They have managed to not make a big political stink about doing the right thing. Wyoming’s leadership is looking more like follower-ship these days. Sad to see.

    1. Kept businesses in New Mexico open? My contacts in New Mexico have clearly stated the draconian measures taken by the New Mexico Governor has resulted in a high level of small community based business failures – Wal-Mart’s just fine, Mom & Pop dead in their tracks.. Death rate in New Mexico is 2,041 per 1 mil in population and #13th in the nation.

      Better yet, look at your own state’s statistics. Wyoming ranks 40th in deaths per 1 mil people (1,241/1 mil)) and our friends just south of the border in Colorado rank 41st – Wyoming fairly common sense oriented/Colorado on lock down.. And in terms of cases per 1 mil of population, Wyoming is just a tad above the US average

      And I suspect our Mom & Pops are going to have a better chance to survive than those in New Mexico that are already gone and those on the brink.

  4. I follow a broad range of Covid pandemic reporting. Last week one of the very best sources tracking the day to day pandemic actualities — John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center — showed that our Wyoming was the ONLY state in the Union reporting a measurable to significant increase in new Covid cases. All 51 of the others inc. Puerto Rico and D.C. were either neutral in new Covid cases or showing declines up to 20 percent week to week ( moving 7-day daily tallies to smooth out reporting lag ). I’m postulating that an influx of out-of-state travelers may explain some of Wyoming’s persistent pandemic rate for the month of May, but the greater part is our resident ” attitude” , as shown by looking at two other factors:

    Wyoming not coincidentally also showed some of the very lowest usage of facemasks in public places , and nearly the lowest percentage of adults vaccinated at least once. Wyoming has been widely allergic to facemasks since Day 1 due to misplaced pride, and only Mississippi showed fewer shots.

    Wyoming wins again .

  5. This article completely overlooks the fact that, by CDC estimates, 200,000 t0 250,000 people in Wyoming were already infected by COVID. Studies have shown that immunity from infection is at least as good as immunity from vaccination. Roughly 40% of the state was already “vaccinated” before vaccines rolled out. That’s why cases are dropping “despite lagging vaccination rate.” Not only is there no need for public money to be spent on pro-vaccine propaganda, the state is already short on money as it is.

    1. This is false. The CDC estimates that about 10% of Wyoming residents have had COVID. Which means there are a lot more for the new Delta variant to infect.

  6. I know a number of families whose vacation plans intentionally exclude Wyoming because of its anti-science attitude. One of them said they’d “sneak into Wyoming” from Idaho to see Yellowstone. The comment was playful, but the sentiment very real.

    1. Last year, and this year, Jackson and the parks have been setting records for the number of visitors. Less is better. We are overrun.

    2. Teton County has been attempting to counter Wyoming’s terrible reputation as an “antivaxx state” by launching vaccination drives, and as a result has the highest percentage of its population vaccinated of any Wyoming county: 60%. But people are still avoiding Wyoming, because they see the statewide percentage (just barely approaching 1/3 at this writing, and competing with a couple of southern states for last place).

  7. If the state was serious about the need for vaccinations it would invest in a more traditional public health communication campaign based on qualitative research/insights with social norming, social proof, paid media, etc… the lack of investment and effort speaks louder than words. Australia’s Cervical Cancer vaccine campaign is a great model: https://twitter.com/lucycochran/status/1399249226496843777

  8. Unlike Mr. Randolph, I don’t believe the government hype and use of experimental drugs. Further, the actual danger of the covid virus is grossly over-stated and used primarily as a means of testing how much government control we the people will tolerate. I am 76, healthy, and take all reasonable precautions to avoid getting ANY virus, not just covid.

    While I definitely believe that covid has indeed killed far too many of our citizens, it is not a pandemic. It is just another virus that we weren’t prepared to handle. The actual danger from the virus is being downgraded every day. Quit listening to the government hype and take back our country from the power crazed totalitarians that are trying to control everything we do.

    1. “While I definitely believe that covid has indeed killed far too many of our citizens……” Mr. Tooman’s statement begs the question: how many fellows citizens felled by SARS CoV-2 would he find acceptable? Covid 19 killed an estimated 594,000 Americans in the past year. 719 of those were in WY.. Worldwide the estimated death toll is 3,550,00o. – pandemic numbers in most people’s book.

      I think it’s the water in Wyoming….

    2. “…the power crazed totalitarians….” fortunately for America we were able to get the worst one out of the White House…

  9. As new and mote dangerous variants emerge the in Wyoming the disease and death rates will bontinue to rise. As this gets reported in the media and other sources it will begin to hurt tourism and our economy as people don’t want a chance ro still catch this disease. Culling the herd here in Wyoming will be bad for business, bad for people and make our state look bad in the eyes of many in the rest of the world. Mostly be cause the one doing this are more likely making a political statement then following a reasonable course and getting a vaccine

    1. Wyoming is 40th in death rates from COVID. Variants so far have been vulnerable to antibodies from both infection and vaccination. If a variant can evade antibodies from infection, then it can evade antibodies from vaccination, because they were designed on old strains of the virus.

      From a tourist standpoint, people who are afraid of the virus will already have been vaccinated anyway. Those who aren’t afraid of the virus won’t care how many people in Wyoming have been vaccinated.

      There’s nothing reasonable about getting vaccinated against a virus that 1) has an extremely low mortality rate for people without underlying health conditions and 2) half of us already have been infected with anyway. People shouldn’t avoid a useful vaccine to make a political statement, but neither should they make a political statement by receiving an experimental vaccine they don’t need.

      1. Wyoming currently has the highest number of infections per capita, and the highest rate of NEW infections per capita, of the 50 states. Not exactly a badge we should wear with pride. And vaccination is so much more effective at creating immunity than infection that doctors worldwide are recommending that those who have recovered from infections get shots.

        As for the vaccines being “experimental:” they’re not. They are merely subject to an emergency authorization due to an overly conservative FDA rule which requires an arbitrarily long period before non-emergency approval. They are ready millions of times better tested than the Sabin, MMR, and smallpox vaccines were before they were made available to the general public… and, unlike those, contain no living or even dead copies of the virus against which they confer immunity. They are safe, effective, and necessary, and with COVID still raging here (the Delta variant is now spreading in Wyoming, mostly in Laramie County) only someone who was suicidal, deluded, or incredibly stupid would refuse them.