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With Casper's vaccine clinic open, some residents are eager to get their shots. Will enough opt in to make it count?
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With Casper's vaccine clinic open, some residents are eager to get their shots. Will enough opt in to make it count?

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“I’m going to go to the movies. I’m going to eat out,” Casper attorney Lucketta McMahon says, her eyes revealing a grin beneath her mask.

Today, McMahon is fully vaccinated. Her 86-year-old mother in Missouri gets the second dose today, too. They saw each other for the first time in a year last weekend.

When the pandemic arrived, McMahon had been in remission from cancer for a year. Her mother was in delicate health as well.

She remembers watching the virus’s death toll grow, day by day. She considered the chances she or a loved one would be among them before the end. She was scared for her mother.

“I worried all year I wouldn’t get a chance to see her again,” McMahon says.

But this day is one for joy. McMahon is triumphant, walking out of the abandoned-Macy’s-turned-vaccine-clinic in Casper’s Eastridge Mall. She has a granddaughter she’s never held. Friends she’s eager to see.

She’s among more than 114,000 Wyomingites who are now fully inoculated against COVID-19, a virus that has killed half a million people in the U.S. and left many more chronically ill.

She’s also among the first to receive a shot at the newly opened Casper Vaccination Center — a mass vaccination clinic set up by the Casper-Natrona County Health Department.

By 3:30 p.m. on its first day, the clinic will have administered 600 doses. Spokesperson Hailey Bloom expected that number to reach nearly 700 by the end of the day.

It’s not quite the 1,500 appointments Bloom says the clinic has the capacity for, but as word spreads, more appointments will fill up. Vaccine hesitancy is now a primary concern for national leaders working to end the pandemic and return life to normal.

The Biden administration is spending $10 million on a campaign encouraging people to get their shots and establishing a coalition of local organizations to promote the vaccines to their members.

Surveys show high vaccine hesitancy in Wyoming as officials work to promote safety, value of shots

Locally, Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell has said that while he’s optimistic, if not enough people are vaccinated the virus could rebound in the fall.

That fact is concerning to some. Several residents at the clinic say the hesitation toward the shots made them nervous. But they all say getting their own vaccine was the most they could do. The rest is out of their control.

“At this point, it’s to each their own,” says 28-year-old Robert Stover, who has altered much of his life to keep the virus at bay and who received his first dose of a vaccine Wednesday.

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His parents are older and at risk of severe infection, and that has kept him and his 8-year-old daughter extremely isolated during the last year. Formerly a property manager, Stover left that job and got his real estate license instead. The switch allowed him to work from home.

He kept his daughter home from school as many of her friends returned to the classroom in September. “The only thing she’s been able to do is some athletics,” he adds.

The vaccines give him hope she’ll be able to return to her normal life soon, without the risk of getting her grandparents sick.

Casper mall vaccination clinic prepares to get shots in arms

Derrell Wagner has been sick. He’s lost loved ones. In September he developed COVID-19 and was sick for a month. He never went to the hospital, but he came close enough that the local emergency room was expecting him, he says.

“To have the opportunity to not get sick again, I’m going to take it,” he says as he leaves his appointment.

For some getting vaccinated Wednesday, the pandemic came in the midst of other life transitions. The virus put things on pause. The vaccines are a way to resume those plans.

Julie Kuhlman had just moved her parents into an assisted living facility in Kearney, Nebraska, when COVID-19 arrived in Wyoming.

“I just thought I’d be going down quite a bit to see them,” she says.

But a few months after the move, the pandemic began. They’ve been making up the lost time through phone calls and email. Kuhlman even started a book study for her mother to stave off boredom. As cases have dipped, things have gotten more hopeful.

She saw her parents for the first time in a year on Easter.

Many health officials say they are optimistic, too. Wyoming has lifted nearly all public health orders as cases have dropped and experts believe the world could look more like normal this summer.

But vaccinations are key, epidemiologists say. Physicians from Casper’s own Dowell to national infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci have said at least 70% of the population needs to have been vaccinated or infected to reach herd immunity, leaving the virus without enough vulnerable hosts for it to spread.

National surveys suggest as much as 70% of unvaccinated Wyomingites are unlikely to get a shot. A state-led survey puts reluctance closer to 40%.

Currently, about 20% of the state is fully vaccinated, and more than 25% has had at least one shot. For now, officials hope the skeptical will find comfort as more people get vaccinated.

The Casper Vaccination Center will host three clinics a week: Mondays, Wednesdays, and alternating Fridays and Saturdays. Clinics will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and residents can sign up for an appointment online at CasperVCovid.com.

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

Follow health and education reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @m0rgan_hughes

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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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