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Jordan Lentz, left, and James Lehtola work together to lay down a continuous piece of padded tape for the drive-thru COVID testing facility Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. The rate of COVID spread in the community has slowed in recent weeks as the COVID vaccine has circulated throughout the community, according to Sheridan Memorial Hospital CEO Mike McCafferty.

SHERIDAN — The COVID-19 vaccine is being opened to Sheridan County residents with a variety of chronic health conditions this week.

The move into priorities seven through nine of vaccination phase 1B will open the vaccine to those with medical conditions including cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, solid organ transplant, sickle cell disease, down syndrome, diabetes, heart conditions, obesity, an immunocompromised state and severe neurologic conditions like stroke and dementia.

The vaccine will also become available to pregnant women, although they should discuss vaccination with their doctor in advance, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.  Other groups that are now eligible to receive the vaccine include public transit employees, grocery store employees and U.S. Postal Service employees.

Sheridan Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer John Addlesperger said he expects several thousand county residents to become newly eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine with the opening of the new priority populations.

Sheridan County is currently in Phase 1 of vaccine distribution, which means vaccines are in limited supply and are being allocated to specific populations. The Wyoming Department of Health developed the Phase 1 priority list based on recommendations from the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

For now, Phase 1 is being broken into three subphases: 1A, 1B and 1C. All of the Phase 1A populations in Sheridan County have been vaccinated. The first six 1B priority populations have also been vaccinated, including those older than age 65, emergency personnel, funeral practitioners, in-person employees of congregate care facilities, K-12 education teachers, child care service providers and health care providers.

As of Feb. 18, Sheridan County had administered 4,268 first doses of the vaccine and 1,994 second doses, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. An additional 800 first doses are set to be administered this week, according to Addlesperger

There are two COVID-19 vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The first is developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and the second by Moderna. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require multiple doses to be effective. A second dose of the Moderna vaccine is required 28 days after the first dose, while a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is required 21 days after the first.

Demand for the vaccine in the higher priority populations has slowed, which has allowed the hospital to expand their vaccine distribution. Despite this, Addlesperger said there were many eligible county residents who had not received the vaccine yet and encouraged them to receive it. Vaccines will be open to all previously eligible groups even as access is expanded, Addlesperger said.

“There’s a lot of people not getting the vaccine,” Addlesperger said. “We’ve run the reports on the numbers of patients over 65 and 70, and we know that we have not reached everyone in that population. We did want to keep things open for them… but it is time to open up. We do know that there are people out there that… this vaccine could be lifesaving or prevent them from getting severe disease so we still encourage people to get in as we move on.”

As the vaccine is distributed through the county, the spread of COVID-19 in the community has slowed, according to hospital CEO Mike McCafferty.

As of Feb. 19, the Wyoming Department of Health reported 20 active lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sheridan County, including 2 new cases. There have been 2,926 recovered cases and 27 deaths in the county. As of Thursday, there were two patients hospitalized in the county including one in the Intensive Care Unit.

McCafferty said it was hard to pinpoint exactly why the COVID-19 infection rate was slowing in the community and said it could be a combination of a variety of factors including vaccinations, social distancing measures and a decrease in COVID-19 testing.

“I think there are a number of factors,” McCafferty said. “Certainly, a lot of people in the community have already had COVID so that is a factor. In addition, I think a lot of the things we’re doing, like social distancing, is having an impact. And then you also have to consider that testing has gone down a little bit over the last few weeks, so that might be contributing to the lower numbers as well.”

While vaccination may not be the only factor in the county’s COVID-19 decline, a recent outbreak in some local long-term care facilities has shown the vaccine is having a significant impact, according to the hospital’s Chief Nursing Officer Barb Hespen.

A total of 42 residents at Sheridan Manor contracted COVID-19 during an outbreak there, and an additional seven were infected during an outbreak at the Westview Health Care Center, Hespen said. But only a handful of those residents had to be hospitalized — something Hespen attributes to the residents receiving their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine prior to the outbreak.

“I think they’ve controlled their outbreak really well at Sheridan Manor because most of those residents had their first vaccine,” Hespen said. “Of the 42, only three were hospitalized. A couple of patients from Westview were hospitalized too. But, at this point, it hasn’t been nearly as deadly as it could have been, and I think the vaccine has played a role in that.”

The hospital is currently scheduling vaccination appointments for eligible individuals. Call 307-675-4471, leave a message, and you will be contacted when an appointment is available.

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