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Registered nurse Anna Hernandez gives Respiratory Therapist Judy Jaspers a dose of the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, inside the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. Laramie County received 975 doses of the state’s initial supply of 5,000 and has begun to administer them to medical personnel. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Amid a slow rollout of coronavirus vaccinations across the country, state and local public health officials are asking for patience.

“I know it feels slow right now, and it is because we have to be very intentional about who gets the vaccines first,” said Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department. “But we are getting them out there, and everybody who wants a vaccination will have one, and we’re going to make sure that it happens in an efficient matter and make sure that we serve the community of Laramie County.”

As of Tuesday, 35% of vaccine doses received by the state had been administered, though numbers could be delayed up to 72 hours, according to the Wyoming Department of Health website. These numbers do not include doses received or administered by F.E. Warren Air Force Base, the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center or tribal groups.

Nationally, 31% of distributed doses had been administered as of Wednesday morning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rate of vaccinations is expected to increase “within the next couple of weeks – we are already seeing it happen,” State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said Wednesday.

Giving out the coronavirus vaccine is different than previous vaccination campaigns undertaken by City-County Health in the past, Emmons said. For example, annual flu vaccination clinics are not beholden to priority groups set by the CDC and the Wyoming Department of Health, to which the City-County Health Department is adhering closely.

Emmons emphasized that scheduling for Phase 1b is currently underway as Phase 1a vaccinations wrap up in Laramie County, though she said there would be very little overlap. Until City-County Health gets through priorities 1a, 1b and 1c – a new category that includes people 65 and older, people between 16-64 years old with high-risk medical conditions and some essential workers, per CDC recommendations – they plan to continue sending out links for an online registration system to schedule vaccination appointments.

Harrist said it was up to counties to decide when they moved on from priority group 1a to 1b, and so on.

According to CDC guidelines, “it is not necessary to vaccinate all individuals in one phase before initiating the next phase; phases may overlap.”

“We don’t want vaccines sitting on shelves,” Harrist said. “So if there’s not further movement in 1a, then yes, we want people to move on to 1b and start giving out those vaccines.”

People who fall into priority phase 1b – those 70 years of age or older and frontline essential workers who interact with the public – can expect to begin receiving vaccinations in two to three weeks, according to a Wednesday afternoon post on City-County Health’s Facebook page.

One of the primary issues, Emmons said, is a limited number of healthcare providers available to administer the vaccine.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” she said. “And right now, all around the world, there’s a high demand for those health care professionals who are allowed to administer vaccinations. The supply, however, is not meeting the demand.”

There are other complicating factors, Emmons and Harrist said, including that the two currently approved vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses to be effective, which makes scheduling more difficult, and that temperature restrictions have health officials worried about potentially wasted doses.

Many doses of the vaccine were also received shortly before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, reducing the number of health care providers able to administer the vaccine, as well as the number of people available to receive it, Harrist said.

There is also a hesitancy to plan mass vaccinations because coronavirus is highly contagious, Emmons said.

“We don’t want to just say, ‘Everybody come to Storey Gym all at one time, and we’re going to vaccinate you all,’ because then we’ve got people who are in close proximity to each other, they’re not going to be able to space appropriately, and we run the risk of more cases of COVID,” Emmons said. “So, from a logistical perspective, there are just many, many more complexities to this than there has been with other vaccine campaigns.”

Still, she said, once City-County Health moves past phases 1a through 1c and into the broader population, they will “absolutely” do vaccination clinics – potentially beginning in March or early April, though she said the timing was “pure speculation” at this point.

The department is considering drive-thru options, including converting the Event Center at Archer, which has been functioning as a drive-thru COVID testing site, Emmons said. But not all residents have cars or the ability to get to Archer, so the department may set up clinics in schools or senior facilities, or attempt small clinics in neighborhoods throughout Cheyenne, she said.

“What we’re gonna have to do is to just get really creative with using the resources we have to expand out vaccination opportunities as much as possible,” Emmons said.

Local health officials have said vaccination of residents in long-term care facilities, part of the state’s 1a priority group, are being handled through a federal partnership with national pharmacy chains. A news release issued Wednesday by CVS Health said the company is administering coronavirus vaccines “in skilled nursing facilities in 49 states, with the rollout beginning in 36 states and Washington, D.C., last week.” The program began in Wyoming on Monday, according to the release.

State Department of Health spokesperson Kim Deti said “many, but not all” Wyoming long-term care facilities have opted into the program.

The best way to stay up to date on when your turn may come to receive the vaccine, Emmons said, is to check the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department website and Facebook page. She added that the state health department is working on adding features to their website that will allow residents to find out which phase their county is in and how close they are to being vaccinated.

Public communication will also increase once the vaccine is available to the broader public, Emmons said.

The vaccine is expected to be the way out of the pandemic, Harrist said. But in the meantime, Wyomingites need to continue wearing masks and staying home when they feel sick.

“I want people to realize that this is going to be about a six-month process, I think,” Emmons said. “We’re not going to have everybody vaccinated in six weeks. ... This is not going to be a quick process. We’re going to make it as efficient and quick as possible, but it’s going to take some time.”

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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