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Katherine Brakefield of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department gives a COVID-19 vaccine at the department’s one-day flu/COVID vaccine clinic on South Greeley Highway. The clinic was open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by lunchtime, the staff had counted more than 170 visitors to the clinic. Rhianna Gelhart/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER – Wyoming remains the most vaccine hesitant state in the nation, according to the latest numbers from U.S. Census Bureau polling. Wyoming children ages 12 to 17 now fall into that category, as well.

An estimated 25% of Wyoming adults and 27% of eligible children will definitely or probably not get a vaccine, based on responses to an online bureau survey and statistical modeling conducted by the federal agency.

West Virginia and Idaho – the states with worse or comparable vaccination rates to Wyoming – reported roughly 15% of residents would definitely or probably not accept inoculation, a difference of 10 percentage points from Wyoming’s position as the most vaccine hesitant state in the country.

Nationwide, about 11% of residents say they definitely or probably will not seek COVID-19 shots. The top reason for declining the inoculations was concern over side effects.

The survey breaks the population of unvaccinated residents into four camps: those who will definitely not get the shots, those who probably will not, those who are unsure and those who will probably get vaccinated at some point.

The top two reasons Wyoming residents in the two most reluctant categories said they wouldn’t get vaccinated were a distrust of government overall and a distrust of the vaccines themselves.

That reasoning is vastly different from residents who said they are unsure of the shots and those who said they will probably seek the inoculations at some point. Those groups listed a desire to “wait and see” and concerns over potential side effects as their top barriers.

The poll is the latest in a series of household surveys conducted by the Census Bureau since April 2020. The most recent poll included questions about whether children 12 to 17 years old, who are now eligible for the shots, would take them.

In Wyoming, it’s estimated 27% of eligible children will definitely or probably not get vaccinated. That’s 10 percentage points higher than the national average of about 17%.

For both Wyoming and the nation, the top reason for keeping children from getting the shots was concern over possible side effects, but in both cases distrust of government was also a top barrier.

The Census Bureau stresses the figures are estimates based on what it describes as an “experimental data project” reliant on an online survey meant to provide timely information on a litany of issues tied to the pandemic and beyond.

The data does, however, align with survey results collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which in late September reported 21% of parents nationwide with eligible children would “definitely not” get their kids vaccinated against COVID-19.

Wyoming reports dismal progress in vaccinating that age group, with roughly 35% having at least one shot. It is the second-lowest percentage in the nation after West Virginia – a comparable statistic to the adult population.

Vaccines have been available to adults statewide since April and children 12 years and older since May. While breakthrough cases are being reported, 98% of new infections since May 1 have been among residents not fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Active cases in the state are declining, with just above 3,400 reported Wednesday. That figure is similar to late August at the start of the latest Wyoming surge, and in December, when the first spike began waning. At the virus’ lowest stage this year, Wyoming was recording between 450 and 500 active cases.

Despite the decline in active cases, unvaccinated residents developing severe illness from a more aggressive strain of the virus is straining Wyoming’s already limited hospital system.

Throughout September, hospitalizations have hovered above 200, hitting 233 early this month. Monday, 219 people were hospitalized with the virus statewide. Nearly 60 of those patients were being treated at Casper’s Wyoming Medical Center, which has this month treated more total patients per day than physicians can ever remember at the facility.

With the state’s largest hospital having to turn away transfer requests more frequently, and with surrounding states in similar positions, smaller Wyoming hospitals have struggled to keep pace. Staffing has been a primary concern.

“We hear overwhelmingly staffing is an issue across all our facilities,” Josh Hannes, vice president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said last week. “Not even just clinical staff, which is certainly the biggest part of it. But the housekeeping, environmental services staff, dietary staff, food service staff ... I mean all positions. They’re really struggling to have enough people to do the work they need to do.”

The hospital association is working to bring traveling nurses to Wyoming facilities, but demand for them is high nationwide.

“Part of the problem now is just the need versus the number of bodies that exist out there to fill spots. They’re just not out there,” Hannes said.

Some hospitals have temporarily needed to shift into crisis care, meaning leaders acknowledge they don’t have the resources to care for all patients and could start rationing treatment.

Without an increase in vaccination rates, Wyoming’s situation may only grow more severe, state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said in an interview earlier this month.

“Unfortunately, I think we will continue to see this virus spread, and we will continue to see the emergence of variants that make it more difficult moving forward,” if vaccination does not improve, Harrist said. “The worst-case scenario is that we get a variant that the vaccines don’t work against. The more transmission we have, the more this virus can replicate.”

The health department this month launched a new campaign promoting the shots that focused on stories from Wyomingites who suffered complications from COVID-19 and regretted not getting inoculated.

Gov. Mark Gordon, who is fully vaccinated, says he encourages residents to choose inoculation but also maintains it is a personal choice. He has promised no additional interventions to curtail the virus will be taken by his office, stressing that he will sign no further mask requirements while vocally opposing federal attempts to mandate vaccination among large employers and certain medical facilities.

State lawmakers next week will convene a special session geared at opposing those federal mandates, which would affect private businesses and federal employees.

Despite vocal politicians, some private employers are requiring their staff to get vaccinated. Banner Health, which operates four Wyoming hospitals including the state’s largest in Casper, set a Nov. 1 deadline for all employees to be fully inoculated against the virus.

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