One thing is certain about the vaccine rollout — everyone wishes it were faster.
However, Teton County’s limiting factor hasn’t been getting shots into arms. Instead, the county simply can’t get enough doses to match demand.
“It’s not like anybody’s holding the vaccine back on any of these people,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said. “Believe me, we’d like to get you all vaccinated, especially with the variant here.”
The arrival of the B.1.1.7 variant, first seen in the United Kingdom, was unsurprising to health officials, who thought it was only a matter of time. Because the United States has limited genomic testing of coronavirus samples, Pond said, the variant was likely in Teton County before it was detected.
Recent growth in cases is another indicator the variant may have arrived a while ago.
“We had suspected this based on how steep the curve looked since around the first of the year,” Pond said, referencing charts showing new COVID-19 cases in Teton County. “It went straight up. It shot up just like a rocket.”
Active cases surpassed 300 for the first time this week before dipping back to 263 lab confirmed cases and four probable on Tuesday afternoon, according to Wyoming Department of Health data. The Health Department also announced a fifth Teton County death related to COVID-19 on Tuesday, a woman who was in a long-term-care facility in another state.
With the virus spreading rapidly and no new public health measures immediately on the docket, there’s little to suggest anything except widespread vaccination will present a long-term solution. At the rate vaccines are being distributed to the county, it could take nearly two years to vaccinate everyone and reach herd immunity.
The county received 1,075 first doses in December and is slated to get another 1,200 first doses in January. Between the county Health Department and St. John’s Health, nearly everyone in the first tier 1a priority groups has had the opportunity to be vaccinated.
Efforts are now being focused on the next tier, 1b priority groups, which includes critical industries and people over 70. Some states have expanded their vaccine programs to include other groups, including people over 65 or those with high-risk conditions, but Wyoming has hewed closely to the recommendations from the federal Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices.
Limited supply and high uptake rates in Teton County have left things feeling slow.
“If you have 50% of your population in some other counties saying yes, and we have closer to 80 to 90%, it’s going to take us longer,” Pond said.
Teton County’s geography and housing crisis present another problem. The county receives doses based on population, but vaccines are administered by industry.
Local workers who live in Teton Valley, Idaho, or Star Valley receive their shots where they work, so Teton County actually has more people to vaccinate than U.S. Census population estimates show. That slows the process even further and stretches the scarce supply.
Distributions are expected to increase at some point, state Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti wrote in an email, as drug companies ramp up production. However, the Health Department doesn’t have estimates yet for how numbers will look in February.
Until all priority groups are vaccinated, local officials are bound to follow the blueprint laid out by the state. Pond said she understands the frustration of groups like teachers, who are seeing their counterparts in Idaho be vaccinated, but she said the shots have to be offered to all groups ahead of teachers first. That includes people over 80, who should all be inoculated this week.
Next week, they hope to move on to people over 75, and people over 70 the following week. Pond wishes it could go faster, but she and her staff are basically giving out all the shots they can.
In the face of waiting for more doses, Pond had a succinct description for the rollout: “It’s very slow.”