Team Rubicon

Volunteer Cindy Peterson shows patients where to park to receive the COVID-19 vaccine last month at the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole. As many as 500 doses of the vaccine were administered on peak days at the church.

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Roughly two in five Teton County residents are fully vaccinated.

That’s almost double the statewide rate, according to Wyoming Department of Health data. Despite the rosy numbers, however, any threshold of community protection isn’t worth much if it’s only at the county level.

“Until the whole state and the people that are traveling here are fully vaccinated, you personally might be safer, but that doesn’t mean that we can get this pandemic behind us,” county Director of Health Jodie Pond said.

Still, the numbers are an encouraging sign that the county is charging forward in its vaccination campaign. The Wyoming Health Department now publishes county-level immunization estimates, and Teton County has a much higher rate than any other in Wyoming at 39.72% as of Tuesday afternoon, though that data may lag by up to 72 hours.

Because people register with their addresses, the data takes into account commuters who live elsewhere and those who traveled to other counties for shots early on. Hot Springs, Albany, Sheridan and Park counties, the closest to Teton, are all just above 25%. Overall the state has a 22% vaccination rate, just under the nation’s 23% clip.

Public health officials credit a couple of factors for the high vaccination rate: overall enthusiasm and a coordinated response.

“In the very, very beginning we had high uptake of vaccines in our county,” Pond said. “And that’s why we’ve very methodically had to go through each of the categories and do it in a really fair, equitable way according to the guidance we got from the Wyoming Department of Health.”

In the early part of the vaccination campaign, supply was the main pinch point. Demand far outstripped the number of doses coming into the county, and between the hospital and the Health Department vaccines went into arms as fast as they were delivered.

Many priority workforce groups, including law enforcement, education and health care, have large numbers of commuters who live in Star Valley or Teton County, Idaho. One reason that Teton County’s vaccination rate is so high is that supply was increased to account for the large commuter population.

“Teton County clearly has a large workforce presence with residency in another state and that was recognized,” state Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said in a press release. “There has also been steady demand for the vaccines in Teton County.”

Southwestern Wyoming lags far behind Teton County. Sweetwater County is the highest at 21.12%, but Lincoln, Sublette and Uinta counties are all in the high teens. Health officials say it’s not for lack of trying.

Sublette County has vaccinated 17.14% of its population. It had a lower uptake rate in the early months of vaccinations, Public Health nurse manager Janna Lee said, and now the demand has slowed, though she still gives out most of the vaccines she receives.

She attributes the slower rate to fewer people in her county seeking it out.

“We’ve been doing up to 300 in an afternoon with drive-in service,” she said. “Now the limiting factor is people finding out.”

Though Teton County is ahead of the rest of the state, it may be experiencing a slowdown in demand. Since opening shots up to the general population, the Health Department has seen a slight decrease in people scheduling the shots.

“We’re not quite sure why that is,” nurse manager Janet Garland said. “Is that because it’s offseason and spring break? Is it because we’ve already reached the people who knew that they wanted the vaccine right out of the gate?”

It’s too early to answer those questions because it may take some time for people who traveled to sign up following their return. Still, this may mark a transition in the vaccination campaign.

Up to this point almost all efforts have been dedicated to increasing capacity and meeting demand, culminating in using the future Target store to run “mega-clinics” of up to 1,000 doses each day. Now, with capacity and supply potentially outpacing demand, health officials are eyeing a new strategy to ensure that the strikingly quick campaign doesn’t lose momentum.

Vaccine coordinator Stuart Agnew doesn’t believe demand has reached the point at which large-scale clinics will be unnecessary or have lots of spots going unfilled. With large swaths of the general population still eligible and back in town, she thinks the pace will stay strong in the near future, but Health Department staff are starting to find ways to reach groups that may be slower to sign up.

Agnew divided those groups into two categories, those who may have questions or feel hesitant and those who face barriers to receiving the vaccine. To reach the second group, they are starting to work with groups like Hole Food Rescue or the Teton Free Clinic to host pop-up clinics that reach people where they are.

Those efforts include working with Voices JH, which helps immigrants in Jackson, particularly in the Latino and Eastern European communities.

People in those groups might need assistance “navigating the systems to make the appointment,” program director Jordan Rich said. “A lot of our Latinx community is struggling with technological literacy and may or may not have access to the internet, so using the online forms can be challenging.”

As for people in the other group, the ones who want more information before being vaccinated, the Health Department wants to reach them through events like last month’s Facebook live question-and-answer session. Though some conspiracy theories exist about the effect the vaccines can have, most people’s concerns are more pedestrian.

“Most often the kind of thing that we go through with people is definitely being worried about how they’re going to feel after getting their first, and particularly, second dose,” Agnew said.

The efforts to reach people will continue to evolve, Agnew said, including potentially moving toward mobile clinics for outlying communities at some point. All that work to combat hesitancy and reduce barriers to care is crucial to health officials, who want to continue the quickly moving campaign and keep Teton County on its current track.

“At some point the vaccine supply will outpace the demand,” Pond said. “We hope that doesn’t happen before herd immunity.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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