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When Concerns About Safety And Side Effects Lead To Vaccine Hesitancy

The Casper-Natrona County Department Health Department's COVID Vaccine Center at the Eastridge Mall.
Maggie Mullen
Mountain West News Bureau
The Casper-Natrona County Department Health Department's COVID Vaccine Center at the Eastridge Mall.

Inside Eastridge Shopping Mall in Casper, Wyoming was once a Macy's. And signs of that department store life remain — a lot of mirrors, the old beauty department counter, and what used to be changing rooms to try on the latest fashions. Now, this building is a well-oiled, pandemic-fighting machine, with no customers.

"If you're just out doing your thing and think, 'Well, I have a spare 30 minutes, I could go get my vaccine.' Come on down. We're happy to do it," said Hailey Bloom. She's with the Casper-Natrona County Health Department.

When the agency converted this building into a COVID-19 vaccine clinic, it estimated it would be capable of vaccinating up to 1,500 people a day.

"We've never had more than probably 800 to 900, a typical day has been around 200 to 400," said Bloom.

Demand has slowed down. So much so, the department had to ask the state to halt vaccine shipments earlier in April because it was sitting on a surplus of 20,000 shots.

Nonetheless, Bloom seems optimistic. Or, at least, playing it cool and collected in order to create the kind of environment where people can be honest about their vaccine fears.

"If someone comes in, they're unsure, they have questions, we're happy to chat with him, send a nurse over to chat with them. Whatever it takes," she said, "And, if it's not the right time, no one says that you can't walk out and think about it some more and come back next week."

Natrona County Health officer and infectious disease expert, Mark Dowell, admitted that it's difficult to stay cool.

"It makes you very frustrated, you try not to get mad. You try to stay even-keeled, so you can serve the people that have put you in the position," he said.

Inside the Casper-Natrona County Department Health Department's COVID Vaccine Center at the Eastridge Mall.
Maggie Mullen / Mountain West News Bureau
Inside the Casper-Natrona County Department Health Department's COVID Vaccine Center at the Eastridge Mall.

More than 32 percent of the population in Natrona County are thought to be vaccine hesitant, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That's one of the highest percentages in the country.

Resident Connie Anthony fits into that demographic.

"I choose not to get vaccinated," she said. "I just don't have that much trust in government vaccines and such. I don't want anything injected into my body that just hasn't been thoroughly researched, and so, no."

All vaccines go through clinical trials to test safety and effectiveness. And long-term side effects after any vaccination are extremely rare. But that's not what worries someone like Dale Godleez. As of April 30th, there'd been just 33 new confirmed cases in Natrona County over the past two weeks. So he said getting vaccinated is unnecessary.

"I firmly believe that I'm immune to it, so I wouldn't bother getting one," he explained, referring to what he called "good genes."

When it comes to vaccine hesitancy, politics may be playing a part in Natrona County, which voted overwhelmingly to re-elect former President Donald Trump. But the health department is mostly encountering people with concerns about safety and side effects. That was the case for Casper resident Brittanie Brattis.

"I didn't want to get the shot because I didn't want to get sick, 'cause all these people I hear are just getting so sick," she said.

At the same time, Brattis has been really worried about getting the virus. She has severe asthma, plus she deals with the public since she and her husband own a butcher shop together. And like so many, she turned to social media to get more information. She wanted to hear from the people she already knows, so she posted on Facebook.

"I just wanted to know what friends of mine have gotten the shot, and what happened to them," she said.

Brattis got 135 responses. And they ran the gamut. Some people really discouraged Brattis from getting the vaccine, while others reassured her that it was the right choice to make.

"But then people [were] getting in fights with each other, it's so dumb!"

Ultimately, the vaccine won out. Partly because of what Brattis' friends working in healthcare told her. But also, it was simply convenient. When she took her mom to the health department to get vaccinated, she asked the nurse if she could get one too.

"So I just did it. And guess what? I got Pfizer and I was completely fine, with both shots," she explained.

Brattis' experience reflects what many public health experts are saying about this point in the vaccine rollout. Most of those in the Mountain West region that were willing or eager to get vaccinated have done so. It's now down to the folks that are on the fence. Shawnda Schroeder is a rural health expert. She said people that are hesitant don't want to hear from the government, or even scientists.

"They want to hear from someone they trust, they need to know that it's safe and effective. And they need to be able to ask those questions in a safe space," she said.

Schroeder said those one-on-one conversations will be critical for helping people make informed decisions.

"So if you finally reach someone at the point at which they're ready to utilize care, but you don't have the care there for them to access, you've not done anything. You've actually frustrated the individual at the point at which they were finally ready."

That's why, Schroder said, you can't talk about vaccine hesitancy without talking about access.

Copyright 2021 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Maggie Mullen is a fifth generation Wyomingite, born and raised in Casper. She is currently a Masters candidate in American Studies and will defend her thesis on female body hair in contemporary American culture this May. Before graduate school, she earned her BA in English and French from the University of Wyoming. Maggie enjoys writing, cooking, her bicycle, swimming in rivers and lakes, and most any dog.
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