GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) – As her beloved grandmother’s health declined, Lauren Pfenning’s family insisted she get the COVID-19 vaccine before paying her one last visit.
She spent over a week researching the internet for vaccines and was agonized over the decision during and after 12-hour shifts at her job hauling coal at a surface mine near Gillette, in the Wyoming. Her grandmother passed away earlier this month before making a decision, but Pfenning maintains her choice not to get the vaccine.
Pfenning epitomizes Wyoming’s fiercely independent and deeply conservative lifestyle that defined the state’s response to the pandemic and made it the second least vaccinated state on Tuesday, behind only West Virginia. Only 23% of the people in his county have been vaccinated, which places it among the last places in America that have not cracked 25% with their COVID-19 vaccination rates.
The situation in Gillette is emblematic of the free-living and pandemic-minded entrepreneurial spirit that dominates conservative across America at a time when the Delta variant is tearing apart unvaccinated communities.
For every 100 people spotted in the town of Gillette, the number of people wearing masks is counted on one hand. Among a group of six people on a downtown smoke break, all said they were too concerned about the vaccine to bother him. Down the street, a black shirt displayed in a store front warned: “CAUTION SNOWFLAKES: THIS IS NOT A SAFE PLACE”.
People are bristling with President Joe Biden’s workplace vaccination mandate. Asked about the workplace mandates and the possibility of circumventing the requirement with regular antivirus testing, Pfenning’s immediate response: “Test far! “
Anger at presidential meddling in Wyoming affairs dominates statewide, but in Gillette, it gets personal.
The region’s vast coal industry has suffered a decade of decline amid competition from renewables and cheap natural gas, and coal regulations imposed by President Barack Obama – and lifted by President Donald Trump – have provoked the fury of the inhabitants.
“It looks like one attack after another. I think we just want to fight harder at this point. Wyoming as a whole is fed up with being pushed around, ”Pfenning said.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 patients have filled several Wyoming hospitals, including one in Gillette, the state’s third largest city.
At Campbell County Memorial Hospital, 17 of 27 ICU and medico-surgical patients recently had severe COVID-19, leaving just two beds open as the worst cases of coronavirus were transferred to more intensive treatment in neighboring states.
Meanwhile, a local increase – up 34% in one week – has pushed COVID-19 cases to nearly four times the national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Statewide, more than 96% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 were not vaccinated. Yet the daily flow of COVID-19 failed to persuade many Campbell County Memorial Hospital employees to get vaccinated.
Only 39% of the hospital workforce is vaccinated, and there are no plans to demand or encourage it, said hospital chief medical officer Dr Attila Barabas. Wyoming’s statewide vaccination rate of 41% is well below the national rate of 55%.
“I am a strong believer in freedom of choice. I honestly think that’s a fundamental part of being American. And I think mandates can be awkward and can cause a setback to some extent, ”Barabas said.
The doctor got vaccinated and encouraged relatives and patients to do the same. Ultimately, however, “it has to be a choice you make,” Barabas said.
Wyoming’s perspective on vaccination mandates may soon become critical. Wyoming officials promise a vigorous fight against Biden’s vaccine mandate, with talks about using the president’s coronavirus relief funds to compensate companies for fines imposed on them for defying the mandate.
At the same time, they kindly encourage people to receive the jab.
In a TV commercial showing people dancing online to country music, a woman says she got the vaccine so she could have a “girls’ night.” Wyoming has spent $ 900,000 and plans to spend an additional $ 685,000 on such ads, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
The search for a balance with COVID-19 policies has at times misled Republican Governor Mark Gordon. Preparing to impose an unpopular mask mandate across the state last year, Gordon lashed out at those who refused to take action to control the virus, calling them “knuckleheads.”
This year, as the delta variant has resulted in more deaths and illnesses in the state, Gordon has vowed not to mandate the mask, but said people should get vaccinated “if you want.”
Vaccine resistance during the pandemic reflects a broader dilemma for public health officials in a region where prevailing attitudes lead to high smoking and low influenza vaccination, cancer screening, and rates of drug use. seat belt, said acting department director Stefan Johansson.
“We just have a population that I think is indicative of the Mountain West culture who, you know, live freely and don’t always follow health advice,” Johansson said.
For Pfenning, the coal mine worker, the decision not to vaccinate was due to her belief that the approval process was rushed and that there are too many risky side effects, despite the fact that hundreds millions of people have been safely vaccinated and avoided serious illness and hospitalization.
“It has nothing to do with politics. I’m even picky about what I give my horses, I’m picky about what I give my dogs. And we over-vaccine, ”Pfenning said.
And while Pfenning said his decision was not political, politics permeates. In November, Wyoming gave Trump its largest margin of victory of any state, 70 percent. Campbell County gave Trump one of its widest margins of victory in Wyoming, 87%.
“People are so conservative here that they have these roots of saying, ‘Look, I don’t like the government regulating my life,’ said Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad.
Scott Clem, pastor at Gillette Central Baptist Church, is among the town’s many who are not vaccinated. The former Republican lawmaker led a protest to burn masks at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne in January and says he trusts his immune system to protect it.
“It’s none of your business whether or not I’m vaccinated,” Clem said. “That, I think, in a certain sense is being busy in other men’s affairs. I think that’s part of the feeling here in Wyoming. We’re pretty hardy individuals here in the west.
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