GILLETTE, Wyo (AP) – When her beloved grandmother’s health deteriorated, Lauren Pfenning’s family insisted that she be given a COVID-19 vaccine before paying her one final visit.
She spent over a week researching vaccines on the internet and was apprehensive about the decision during and after 12-hour shifts at her job transporting coal at an open pit near Gillette, Wyoming. Her grandmother died earlier this month before making a decision, but Pfenning stands by her decision not to get vaccinated.
Pfenning embodies the highly independent, deeply conservative way of life in Wyoming that defined the state‘s response to the pandemic, making it the second least vaccinated state behind West Virginia as of Tuesday. Only 23% of their county’s residents have been vaccinated, making it among the lowest places in America to not have cracked 25% with their COVID-19 vaccination rates.
The situation in Gillette is emblematic of the life-without-life mentality of running its own business versus the pandemic prevailing in conservative America at a time when the Delta variant is ripping through unvaccinated communities.
For every 100 people spotted in town in Gillette, the number of mask wearers can be counted on one hand. Among a group of six who took a smoking break downtown, all said they had too many vaccine concerns to bother with. Down the street a black shirt in a shop front warned: “BEWARE OF SNOWFLAKES: THIS IS NOT A SAFE PLACE.”
People are reluctant to get the vaccine mandate in the workplace pushed by President Joe Biden. When asked about workplace requirements and the possibility of circumventing the requirement with regular virus tests, Pfenning replied immediately: “Test away!”
Anger over the president’s interference in Wyoming affairs is widespread across the state, but it is getting personal in Gillette.
The region’s vast coal industry has suffered a decade of decline amid competition from renewable energy and cheap natural gas, and residents are enraged by the coal regulations imposed – and repealed by President Donald Trump – by President Barack Obama.
“It feels like one attack at a time. I think we just want to hit back harder now. Wyoming as a whole is just fed up with being pushed around, ”said Pfenning.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 patients have filled several Wyoming hospitals, including the one in Gillette, the state’s third largest city.
At Campbell County Memorial Hospital, 17 out of 27 patients in the intensive care unit and medical-surgical unit recently had severe COVID-19, leaving only two beds open while the worst coronavirus cases were flown to neighboring states for more intensive treatment.
Meanwhile, a local surge – a 34% increase in one week – drove COVID-19 cases nearly four times the national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nationwide, more than 96% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated. Still, the daily flow of COVID-19 failed to convince many Campbell County Memorial Hospital staff to get the vaccine.
Only 39 percent of the hospital’s staff are vaccinated, and there are no plans to demand or encourage this, said the hospital’s chief physician, Dr. Attila Barabas. Wyoming’s statewide vaccination rate of 41% is well below the national rate of 55%.
“I firmly believe in freedom of choice. I honestly think that’s a fundamental aspect of the American. And I think mandates can be tedious and pushback to some extent, ”said Barabas.
The doctor got the vaccine and encouraged relatives and patients to do the same. Ultimately, however, “that has to be a decision you make,” Barabas said.
Wyoming’s view of vaccine mandates could soon worsen. Wyoming officials pledge a vigorous battle against Biden’s vaccine mandate and talk about using the president’s coronavirus remedies to compensate companies for fines imposed on them for disregarding the mandate.
At the same time, they gently encourage people to get the jab.
In a TV commercial showing people line dancing to country music, a woman said she was vaccinated so she could do a “ladies’ night out”. Wyoming has spent $ 900,000 and plans to spend an additional $ 685,000 on such ads, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Striving for balance with COVID-19 policies has sometimes shaken Republican Governor Mark Gordon. Preparing to issue an unpopular nationwide mask mandate last year, Gordon slapped people who refused to take steps to control the virus, calling them “knuckleheads.”
That year, as the Delta variant brought more death and illness to the state, Gordon made no promise of a mask mandate but said people should get vaccinated “when you’re ready”.
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 flu vaccination, cancer screening and seat belt use rates, said the department’s interim director Stefan Johansson.
“We just have a population that I think is indicative of Mountain West culture, living freely and not always following health recommendations,” said Johansson.
For Pfenning, the coal miner, the decision not to vaccinate was based on her belief that the permit process was rushed and too many risky side effects were occurring, despite hundreds of millions of people receiving the vaccinations safely and avoiding 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-vaccinate, ”said Pfenning.
And while Pfenning said her decision was not political, politics permeates. In November, Wyoming gave Trump the largest win margin of any state at 70%. Campbell County gave Trump one of its largest Wyoming profit margins at 87%.
“The people here are so conservative that they say, ‘Look, I don’t like it when the government runs my life,'” said Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad.
Scott Clem, pastor of Gillettes Central Baptist Church, is among the many in town who are not vaccinated. The former Republican lawmaker led a mask burning protest at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne in January, saying he trusts his immune system to protect it.
“It’s none of your business whether I have been vaccinated or not,” said Clem. “That, I think, is, in a way, a very busy person with other men’s business. I think that’s part of the mood here in Wyoming. We’re pretty robust individuals here in the west. “
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