Local Officials Prepare COVID-19 Vaccine Messaging, State Employee Spewed Conspiracy

Teton County’s public health officer says the vaccine is likely to be very safe.
Teton County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell is ready get in line for the COVID-19 vaccine. (Jay Nel-McIntosh)

by | Dec 10, 2020 | COVID-19, Health, News

As of December 9, Igor Shepherd is no longer an employee of the Wyoming Department of Health.

Shepherd was the health department’s Readiness and Countermeasures Program Manager who made national news last week for spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Shepherd was the featured speaker at a November meeting of the group, “Keep Colorado Free and Open,” where he told the audience that COVID-19 is a plot to spread communism. In his role at the health department, he worked with COVID-19 response managers around the state, including Teton County.

Now is a crucial time for local health officials to instill trust in an already edgy public. Did their job just get tougher?

When Teton County’s public health response coordinator Rachael Wheeler first heard that Dr. Igor Shepherd had spouted conspiracy theories, she was taken aback.

“Doctor Shepherd works at the state level for the unit that I and the people who do public health response coordinating are all under,” Wheeler said. “I did not know that [he had spoken to that group]. That’s a little discouraging.”

Keep Colorado Free and Open is a loose-knit group of Coloradans who believe the pandemic is a hoax and that their constitutional rights are threatened by masks. A member of their group introduced Dr. Shepherd using his credentials at the Wyoming Department of Health. He also introduced himself as an employee of the health department, but expressed his ambivalence about working for an entity he thinks is trying to harm Americans.

“If you ask me how deeply I’m enjoying the job, well, I don’t anymore,” he said.

While speaking to the group, Shepherd referred to the coronavirus as a “so-called” pandemic. He then lied to the audience. “I want to tell you something very interesting that happened a few days ago when the CDC decided to not count flu patient cases anymore for 2021,” he said. “That means all flu cases go towards Covid numbers because they’re not high enough in the United States.”

As a medical professional and a person of authority, it was Shepherd’s responsibility to know and relay the truth, which is that the CDC has never stopped counting flu cases. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control has a robust influenza surveillance system, and reports current flu activity weekly. Meanwhile, over 15.2 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States, with over 286,443 deaths.

Shepherd then claimed something nefarious is afoot. “We have a problem, we have a deception and we have a treason, treason at the highest level,” he told the audience.

Wyoming Department of Health spokesperson Kim Deti said in an email that Shepherd did not hold a leadership role in the pandemic response unit. She said she is prevented from discussing personnel issues, but she distanced the health department’s work from Shepherd’s rogue move.

“All of the things we’ve said for months and the thousands of hours of dedicated work from our staff and our local partners on this response effort and our excitement for the hope the vaccine offers make our overall department position on the pandemic clear,” Deti said.

Teton County Director of Public Health Jodie Pond says, unfortunately, conspiracy theories about COVID-19 do exist. But she feels confident that the information coming out of the state office is solid. Pond has full faith in the forthcoming vaccine, some of which reportedly will arrive in Jackson this week.

“I personally will get in line when it’s my turn. I will ask my family to get in line,” Pond said. “I have college-age kids, and they will be happy to get a vaccination. They want to go back to living their lives.”

County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell also wants to instill confidence in the public about the vaccine. “It’s important for people who have been in a leadership role with this to come out in public and to combat any conspiracy theories or inaccurate information that might be out there,” he said.

Both Riddell and Pond clarified that the vaccine is being thoroughly vetted.

“I think that we need to have our experts at the Food and Drug Administration and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices review all the data,” Riddell said. “That is the preliminary way that we can determine that the vaccine is both safe and effective.”

Pond says, once approved, the vaccine will be distributed and administered in stages, with certain groups such as health care workers and vulnerable populations taking priority. She asked the public not to call her office to get on a waiting list because no such waiting list exists.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. The general public may not receive the vaccine until March or April.”

The county health department begins its vaccine outreach campaign this week. Rachael Wheeler asked the community to stay tuned and understand that the health department will be working with the CDC and the Wyoming Department of Health to fine-tune messages based on the latest information. They will keep the community updated in real time on where and how to get the vaccine.

“Please be patient,” Pond stressed. “As soon as it’s your turn, we will ask you to come on out.”

According to the Wyoming Department of Health, the vaccine is expected to be free. To achieve herd immunitywhen the bulk of the population is immune to the virusPond says 80 percent of Americans need to be vaccinated.

“When it’s your turn, get in line and roll up your sleeves.”


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About Meg Daly

A former community affairs director for KHOL, Meg is a freelance writer and arts professional. Her work has appeared in Planet Jackson Hole, Homestead, Jackson Hole News&Guide, The Oregonian, and other publications.

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