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Will Wyoming's lawmakers be able to stop vaccine mandates? Some health care workers hope so.
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Will Wyoming's lawmakers be able to stop vaccine mandates? Some health care workers hope so.

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COVID-19 vaccine

Registered Nurse Hana Kim holds up a vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Casper-Natrona County Health Department in Casper on Dec. 16.

Several health care workers and a handful of non-medical personnel spoke against vaccine mandates at a Thursday legislative committee hearing in Casper.

Their ranks included employees of Wyoming Medical Center, one of the few large businesses in the state to require its workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Later, mandate critics joined other lawmakers in a protest outside of the meeting.

Conversely, Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County health officer and infectious disease expert, gave an emotional plea the next morning for residents to get their shots.

All the while, lawmakers are considering a special legislative session to push back on a federal vaccine requirement for workers and potentially to limit other public and private employer vaccine policies.

Medical workers split

Those who testified to the committee Thursday largely opposed any vaccine mandate.

Andrew McAfee, an anesthesiologist at Wyoming Medical Center, told lawmakers the vaccine policy of the hospital’s owner, Banner Health, is creating hostility in the workplace and that he is fighting for his job.

“I go to work everyday and I see people arguing, I see employees crying at work, I talk to people who can’t sleep at night. They’re concerned about losing their jobs,” over the vaccine requirement, he said.

McAfee said he’s aware of several employees who have already resigned their positions or who plan to before the Nov. 1 cutoff, which he said will only exacerbate the state’s hospital staffing crisis.

Twelve Wyoming hospitals reported a critical staffing shortage to the federal government Friday, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, though COVID-19 infections are largely driving those shortages, according to officials at hospitals across the state.

Hostility in the workplace came up several times during Thursday’s testimony.

“I’ve had staff members tell me I am a murderer, that I am the reason people are dying,” a woman named Amber who identified herself as a CNA at Wyoming Medical Center said through tears. “And I got into this field to help people.”

Banner Health operates nearly 30 hospitals around the West, including four in Wyoming. It acquired the state’s largest hospital, Wyoming Medical Center, last October.

In August, the company announced all employees would be expected to have their COVID-19 vaccines else risk termination.

Employees are able to apply for medical or religious exemptions with the company, though Wyoming Medical Center was not able to provide a written policy regarding exemptions when asked Friday.

A Banner spokesperson told lawmakers Thursday that roughly 1,200 exemption requests across Wyoming facilities had been approved thus far. She did not say how many, if any, had been rejected.

Dr. Melissa Hieb, an OBG/YN in Casper, said she’s written medical exemptions for several patients who work for Banner that have been rejected.

She said her patients are breast-feeding mothers worried about how the vaccine will affect their newborns, or else they’re concerned about long-term fertility issues.

“I am not confirming these things, but we do not know,” she said. “Who am I to deny this without long-term data and use?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no evidence any vaccines, including all that have been approved to prevent COVID-19, are tied to fertility issues.

“However, data are limited about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for people who are pregnant,” the agency notes, suggesting pregnant women consult with their doctors before getting the shots.

“COVID and the vaccine both have risks, let us choose our risks,” Hieb said.

The day after the health care workers testified, infectious disease expert Dr. Dowell recorded a brief video message pleading with residents to get their shots. He too said employees are stressed and burnt-out, but not because of the vaccine requirement.

“I’ve had physicians crying, nurses crying, nurses in my office having a hard time. People are trying not to get cynical,” he said, adding that he too is struggling. “I’ve watched way north of 20 people die in the last few weeks and none of them needed to die.”

He continued, “We’re having trouble with scheduling elective surgeries, we have patients with cancer that can’t get their surgery because we don’t have any place to room them. We have patients staying in the ER forever without having a bed to go into.”

Dowell, who has worked with Wyoming Medical Center virus patients since the start of the pandemic, said he wants Wyomingites to change their mindset. He cited the state’s 37% vaccination rate — the lowest in the nation.

Statewide, the number of people choosing to get vaccinated had been rising steadily since late July, after plateauing for months after the inoculations were opened to the general public.

Between the last week of August and the first week of September, nearly 9,000 residents sought a first vaccine dose — the most in any two-week period since spring. But in the last two weeks, the growth has slowed with fewer than 8,000 residents seeking a first shot, according to a Star-Tribune analysis of state data.

The unvaccinated are driving Wyoming’s current surge. Roughly 95% of recently hospitalized individuals have not been fully inoculated, according to state data.

“I’m burning out with this. I’m watching people die and it’s hurting my soul,” Dowell said. “I’ve got to try to maintain my faith in the people in Wyoming.”

Legislative action

Lawmakers have so far proposed two pieces of legislation to fight vaccine mandates, and a special session is being considered to fight the federal requirements.

One of those bills got committee support in July, the other has yet to be drafted.

State Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R- Cheyenne, Friday proposed drafting a bill to prohibit public contractors, entities that receive public dollars or businesses located on public property from mandating or “coercing” COVID-19 vaccines for employees. Details are scant as the bill has not yet been written, though a similar piece of legislation was defeated in committee last legislative session.

Eight committee members supported drafting such a bill, which will likely be presented at the committee’s next meeting.

Committee co-chair Sue Wilson in June drafted a bill with three primary functions tied to vaccinations. First, it requires health care facilities, essential businesses and government entities to accommodate unvaccinated people who require their services. It allows students to apply for waivers to K-12 vaccination requirements based on “personal objection,” rather than only on religious objections. Finally, it forbids employers from requiring would-be employees to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated “unless the employer can demonstrate that an unimmunized employee would create an undue hardship or pose a direct threat to the health or safety of persons in the workplace that cannot be eliminated or reduced by means of a reasonable accommodation.”

Twelve of the committee’s 14 members voted to support that bill at an upcoming session.

Gov. Mark Gordon in May issued an executive order forbidding state agencies and other government facilities from enacting “vaccine passports.” But the state is limited in what it can require of businesses or forbid them from doing.

The CDC has not found any causal links between the COVID-19 vaccines and death. Physicians are required to report any adverse effect a patient experiences after receiving the vaccine even if the vaccine was not the cause.

“Five billion people vaccinated worldwide, it’s safe. Get it done,” Dowell said to conclude his video message. “Because your neighbors and their parents and their brothers and sisters are dying from this. Or having their lives screwed up for months at a time.”

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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