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Cars park along David Street in downtown Casper on Tuesday. The city of Casper could soon make changes to its parking manual for the first time in almost a decade.

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The most vaccine-hesitant counties in America are all in Wyoming, federal models show
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Wyoming is home to the 11 most vaccine-hesitant counties in the nation, according to statistical modeling conducted by an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Thirty-two percent of residents in Johnson, Converse, Washakie, Crook, Niobrara, Weston, Natrona, Goshen, Campbell, Platte and Carbon counties are believed to be hesitant toward the inoculations, more than any other counties in the U.S.

All 23 Wyoming counties were in the top 1% for most hesitant in the U.S. Only Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota reported similarly reluctant populations.

The estimates rely on a U.S. Census Bureau survey assessing public attitude toward the vaccines over time. Wyoming overall ranked second-lowest to Mississippi for its proportion of residents likely to accept a shot.

Government statisticians took that survey and used it to predict how hesitant individual communities will be toward the inoculations. The report’s authors did not provide a margin of error for each county but did stress the figures are statistical estimates and could be swayed by any number of variables.

Local officials are hoping that’s the case. Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell previously told the Star-Tribune he felt survey data was valuable but gave only a snapshot of what was happening in the community.

Still, he did say low vaccine uptake would be a concern.

“I see this getting better and better. I really do,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “But this is a tough time right now because spring break just happened, people are loosening up too quickly, I think. We may be saved by enough people getting vaccine, the warmer weather, and that kind of thing.

“But if people blow off the vaccine now and cold weather comes again in the fall and winter we don’t know if there may be a relapse in some of this if not enough of the population is protected.”

And uptake has slowed. Wyoming was among national leaders for getting shots in arms in the early days of vaccination, but now the state is in the bottom 10 for the percent of residents who have had at least one shot, according to analysis by The New York Times.

The state also ranks in the bottom half for those who are fully vaccinated (roughly 23%, including federal figures.)

The hesitancy data comes as federal regulators pause administration of one of three FDA approved COVID-19 vaccinations for a safety review. Experts have stressed the action should not affect public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, but have acknowledged that is a concern.

Distribution of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is on hold while officials investigate a potential link between the shot and a rare, severe blood clot that has been identified in six individuals nationwide.

Federal officials have urged states to temporarily stop administering the shots, which Wyoming has done.

“Our latest data shows that we have administered more than 7.2 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine and have yet observed only six of these cases,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters during a White House briefing Wednesday.

“Right now, we believe these events to be extremely rare, but we are also not yet certain we have heard about all possible cases, as this syndrome may not be easily recognized as one associated with the vaccine,” she added.

The clots have so far been identified in six women between 18 and 48 years old, each within 13 days after receiving the shot.

Similar events, though also rare, have been reported in recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine being used in Europe. That shot and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have similar construction, Walensky explained, leading U.S. regulators to proceed with extra caution.

She also said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines utilize different technology and so are not a concern.

Walensky said the pause is not meant to alarm anyone, and should not signal to any of the more than 7 million people who have already received the shot that it is unsafe. Rather, she said, it is a precaution to ensure safety while alerting health care professionals to be on the look out for this specific, rare adverse reaction.

She added she hoped the precaution would assure people federal regulators were taking every potential concern seriously.

Just under 10,000 Wyomingites have received a Johnson & Johnson shot.

Photos: Casper-Natrona County Health Department tours new mall vaccination clinic

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Rawlins' Sydney Thorvaldson wins national Gatorade cross country honors
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Sydney Thorvaldson is closing out her high school athletic career in style. The Rawlins senior on Wednesday was named the Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Athlete of the Year.

Thorvaldson is the first student-athlete from Wyoming to earn Gatorade national honors in any sport.

“I really didn’t expect it,” Thorvaldson said during a Zoom meeting, “so it was definitely the best surprise I’ve ever received. This national award was kind of in my wildest dreams, so to see it as reality is really crazy.

“I still am in disbelief, really. It’s crazy. I really don’t have any other words to describe it.”

Last week, Thorvaldson was named the state winner for the fourth consecutive year. The 5-foot-4 senior, who has signed to run cross country and track at the University of Arkansas, has already put together an outstanding final prep season.

She won the Heritage Distance Classic on Sept. 12 in Littleton, Colorado, with a time of 16 minutes, 19 seconds, which at the time was the fastest 5K for a high school girl in the nation. Thorvaldson also won the race last year as well as winning the Nike Cross Northwest Regionals last November in Boise, Idaho. Her time of 16:50.6 was the fastest ever for a high school girl in Idaho.

A four-time Class 3A state champ, Thorvaldson set the all-class state record with a time of 16:59.6 in the 3A state meet on Oct. 23 at the Valley View Golf Course in Afton.

After winning state, Thorvaldson continued to impress on the national stage. She shattered the course record to win the XC Town USA Meet of Champions on Nov. 15 at Terre Haute, Indiana, with a time of 16:38.3. Her time topped the previous course record by 11 seconds. Three weeks later, Thorvaldson raced to a first-place finish at the High School Cross Country National Invite in Lubbock, Texas, with a time of 16:23.85.

On Jan. 22 at the VA Showcase in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she ran the second-fastest indoor 2-mile ever for a high school girl with a time of 9:47.95. Thorvaldson followed that up with a 9:55.09 — the No. 5 mark all-time — which included a 4:47 opening mile, to win the Adidas Indoor National on Feb. 27 in Virginia Beach.

“It all started freshman year when I was given the opportunity to race at the national level,” Thorvaldson said. “I think every time I’ve done that it’s made me better and I’ve learned through experience how to be a better runner. I think it’s helped me develop as a runner and as a person.

Cayla Nimmo, Star-Tribune 

Rawlins junior Sydney Thorvaldson smiles after winning the Kelly Walsh Beartrap Invitational on Aug. 30, 2019 on Casper Mountain.

“A lot of times in Wyoming I do race by myself and it’s just me and the clock. But these races really push me, and I hope we push each other to run our best times. It’s been a great opportunity for me.”

In addition to her accomplishments in cross country, Thorvaldson has won two Gatorade outdoor track & field awards for Wyoming. She was the state winner as both a freshman and sophomore before last season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In a broken season, Thorvaldson actively pursued racing against the best athletes around the country, even traveling thousands of miles to ensure she would be challenged by defending state champions and returning All-Americans,” Erik Boal, an editor with Dyestat, said in a release. “In spite of battling some of the most difficult racing conditions in the nation and, with her legacy in Wyoming unmatched, she saved her best performances for prestigious courses and showcase races in Colorado, Indiana and Texas, consistently separating herself from elite competitors by significant and often lopsided margins.”

Thorvaldson also excels in the classroom at Rawlins High School, where she has maintained a 4.0 GPA and is a member of the student council and the National Honor Society.

Photos: Sydney Thorvaldson through the years

Biden to end 'forever war'
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Wednesday he will withdraw remaining U.S. troops from the “forever war” in Afghanistan, declaring that the Sept. 11 terror attacks of 20 years ago cannot justify American forces still dying in the nation’s longest war.

His plan is to pull out all American forces — numbering 2,500 now — by this Sept. 11, the anniversary of the attacks, which were coordinated from Afghanistan. Soon after Biden made his announcement, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels said the alliance had agreed to withdraw its roughly 7,000 forces from Afghanistan, matching Biden’s decision to begin a final pullout by May 1.

The U.S. cannot continue to pour resources into an intractable war and expect different results, Biden said.

The drawdown would begin rather than conclude by May 1, which has been the deadline for full withdrawal under a peace agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban last year.

“It is time to end America’s longest war,” Biden said, but he added that the U.S. will “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.”

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” said Biden, who delivered his address from the White House Treaty Room, the same location where President George W. Bush announced the start of the war. “I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”

Biden’s announcement, which he followed with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, marks perhaps the most significant foreign policy decision in the early going of his presidency.

He’s long been skeptical about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was a lonely voice in the administration who advised the 44th president to tilt toward a smaller counterterrorism role in the country while military advisers were urging a troop buildup to counter Taliban gains. Biden has also made clear he wants to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy to face bigger challenges posed by China and Russia.

Withdrawing all U.S. troops comes with clear risks. It could boost the Taliban’s effort to claw back power and undo gains toward democracy and women’s rights made over the past two decades. It also opens Biden to criticism, mostly Republicans and some Democrats, even though former President Donald Trump had also wanted a full withdrawal.

“This administration has decided to abandon U.S. efforts in Afghanistan which have helped keep radical Islamic terrorism in check,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “And bizarrely, they have decided to do so by September 11th.”

While Biden’s decision keeps U.S. forces in Afghanistan four months longer than initially planned, it sets a firm end to two decades of war that killed more than 2,200 U.S. troops, wounded 20,000, and cost as much as $1 trillion.

Biden spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday ahead of his speech. The White House said in a statement that Biden told Ghani the United States would continue to support the Afghan people through development, humanitarian and security assistance.

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision, and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition,” Ghani said in a Twitter posting.

Biden spoke, too, with former President Bush ahead of announcing his decision. He also spoke with allies, military leaders, lawmakers and Vice President Kamala Harris to help make his decision, according to the White House. Bush, through his spokesman, declined to comment about his conversation with Biden.

Biden emphasized that his administration will continue to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and assist international efforts to train the Afghan military.

He noted that the “forever war” has led to service members who weren’t even alive at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks serving, as well as young troops following in the steps of their mothers and fathers in deploying to Afghanistan.

“The war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” Biden said.

Obama, who had hoped but ultimately failed to end the war during his time in office, said in a statement that he supported Biden’s decision, that “it is time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily, and that it’s time to bring our remaining troops home.”

Following his speech, Biden visited Arlington National Cemetery to honor those who died in recent American conflicts. After paying his respects, Biden told reporters it was “absolutely clear” to him that ending the war was the right decision. Biden, in his speech and during his visit to the hallowed cemetery, reflected on his own late son Beau Biden’s service. The president’s son, who died of cancer in 2015, had deployed to Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard.

“I’m always amazed that generation after generation, women and men give their lives to this country,” Biden said. “It means I have trouble these days showing up to this cemetery and not thinking about my son.”

A senior administration official said the September withdrawal date was an absolute deadline that won’t be affected by security conditions in Afghanistan.

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Trump says he will soon endorse candidate to run against Cheney
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Former President Donald Trump says he will soon endorse a candidate to run against Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney in the 2022 Republican primary.

Cheney voted to impeach Trump earlier this year for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. As House Republican Conference chairwoman, she was the highest profile of the 10 Republican representatives who did so.

“So many people are looking to run against Crazy Liz Cheney — but we only want one,” Trump said in a statement. “She is so far down in Wyoming polls that the only way she can win is numerous candidates running against her and splitting the vote. Hopefully, that won’t happen. I’ll make an Endorsement soon!”

The statement from Trump PAC Save America also slammed Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, by celebrating the possibility she might not run for reelection. Murkowski was one of five Republican senators to vote to convict Trump in January.

Thus far, state Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne and state Rep. Chuck Gray of Casper have both announced they will run against Cheney next summer. Cheyenne resident Bryan Eugene Keller and former Pavillion Mayor Marissa Joy Selvig have also filed with the Federal Elections Commission.

In January, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz held a rally at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne in protest of Cheney. Trump’s son Donald Jr. called into the rally via speakerphone and said that Wyoming conservatives should not coalesce around a candidate just because they were the first to enter the race. At the time, Bouchard was the only known candidate who had thrown his hat in the ring.

Gaetz is now under federal investigation for alleged sex trafficking.

Trump Jr. also took interest in Wyoming politics with his support of a bill that would have created a runoff election if no candidate won a majority of votes in the primary. The bill, after being amended so that it would have taken effect in 2023, failed to become law in the recently ended legislative session.

Cowboy State Daily reported Wednesday that Cheney had set a quarterly fundraising record with more than $1.5 million.

She comfortably survived a closed-door vote in February during which some members of the House of Representatives sought to strip her of her leadership role.

In response to the pushback she has received from her own party members, Cheney previously told a reporter: “I’m not going anywhere.”

Still, she has faced significant backlash in Wyoming, where Trump received a larger percentage of the vote in November’s election than any other state. The Wyoming Republican Party voted to censure her for her impeachment vote, as did many county-level parties.

Cheney recently said she would not support Donald Trump if he were the Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election.

After becoming the first U.S. president to be impeached twice, Trump was again acquitted in the Senate.

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Fort Caspar escapes cuts, again
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Winter at Fort Caspar Museum might look slow, but things are still happening inside.

The fort buildings are closed, admission is half-price and tourism is down, but staff are arguably the busiest they get all year working behind the scenes — writing grant applications, scheduling tours and events and performing the tedious task of cataloging, researching and preserving artifacts brought in year round.

With museum visitation consistently low between November and February, Casper City Council considered a proposal Tuesday to close its doors during the winter to save on costs.

But after nearly an hour of discussion, council members decided the savings aren’t enough to justify putting the museum’s employees out of work for several months.

“It seems the council has a fundamental lack of understanding of what museums are and what they do,” said Con Trumbull, president of the Fort Caspar Museum Association.

Closing the museum during the winter would save the city roughly $150,000, City Manager Carter Napier said. Most of that would come from cutting the salaries of the museum’s three employees.

The museum isn’t a business, Trumbull pointed out — it sells tickets and things in the gift shop, but its main purpose is to preserve and catalog Casper’s history. That means much more than just Fort Caspar, according to Trumbull, since the museum covers everything from the Oregon Trail to Wyoming agriculture to the development of downtown Casper.

If the city was looking at it from a business perspective, it still might not look too shabby. Trumbull said that in the museum industry, it’s typical to see a 4-5% return on investments from subsidies and other funding. At Fort Caspar, that number is closer to its goal of 20%.

And that’s not taking into account the business the museum says it brings to Casper as a whole — tourists who come to the fort end up going shopping, eating downtown or staying in hotels. Those same revenue streams are used to justify the city’s nearly $1 million annual subsidy for the Ford Wyoming Center, among other leisure and cultural activities the city helps bankroll.

The winter is an important time for the museum, Trumbull said. While the fort buildings are closed and visitation is lower, employees are busy cataloging and researching artifacts, planning and installing exhibitions, applying for grants and fundraising and hosting tours and events.

A previous council heard a proposal for these same cuts in 2018, and decided not to make them after a “tsunami” of support for the museum and its employees, Napier said.

Trumbull said he only heard the city was discussing cuts to the museum just before Tuesday’s work session. The museum’s association has visited with some council members, he said, and he sent all nine an invitation to the group’s next board meeting in May, but there was no formal meeting about winter closures before Tuesday.

Back in 2018, a city memo indicated there was a need for extra workers in the police department during the time the museum would be closed. The museum’s three full-time employees could have been sent to work there during the winter, earning wages out of the police’s pockets instead of the museum’s subsidy. But now, that option isn’t there, and making those cuts would mean putting those employees out of work.

“For $140K, it’s a lot of money,” Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said. “But I also cannot look at three employees in the eye and tell their families sorry. I was on board to make that decision, until every person started coming down and telling their stories.”

Those employees weren’t hired as seasonal workers, Mayor Steve Freel said, unlike people at Hogadon Ski Area or the Casper Municipal Golf Course who know they’re signing up to work for only a few months. Suddenly cutting their jobs for an entire season would be unfair to employees who’d been hired full-time — not to mention, all three of the museum’s employees have master’s degrees in the field and could use the cut as an opportunity to leave the site altogether.

The issue resurfaced this year when freshman council member Bruce Knell proposed looking into making cuts at the fort during one of his first meetings.

On Tuesday, council member Lisa Engebretsen said she sees the museum’s value to Casper beyond the revenue it brings in, but argued its staff should put more effort into making the museum experience engaging. Her most adamant recommendation was to put the employees in period clothes while at work.

“Anybody who works in this museum should not be in today’s clothing, period,” she said.

Trumbull says the museum already offers several living history events throughout the year, but doesn’t have the funds or staffing to hold them more often.