ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – It was 5 p.m. and St. Joseph Health Department Director Debra Bradley was just starting work at her second vaccination clinic that day.
If you won’t come to her for a shot, she’ll come to you. Despite her efforts, she knows she’s losing the battle.
“It’s disheartening,” Bradley said, “especially when you are standing there with a vaccine ready to go and they say, ‘No thank you, I don’t want it.'”
Only about 20% of Buchanan County (St. Joseph is the county seat) has been vaccinated. It’s among the lowest in the state. By comparison, more than 40% of Jackson County has the vaccine, and in St. Louis, it’s more than 50%.
But low vaccination rates have consequences, and St. Joseph is starting to see them.
St. Joseph’s hospital, Mosaic Medical Center, announced that for the first time in months its COVID-19 unit has patients in the double digits. When FOX4 paid a visit on Monday, there were 11 hospitalized. Four days later, there were 14.
“There’s fear of the vaccine,” said Dr. Davin Turner, Mosaic’s chief medical officer.
Turner said even his own staff is reluctant to get a shot. About 40% of those working at the hospital are not vaccinated. Turner said it’s a rate so high that he’s both baffled and concerned.
“These are good vaccines,” Turner said. “They keep you from dying. That’s really the true measure of a vaccine.”
He’s grown increasingly worried that unless more people are vaccinated, St. Joseph could find itself back in the throes of a pandemic.
It’s a cloud hanging over a city desperately trying to return to normal life. Posters hanging on store fronts advertise upcoming street festivals, and in August, Kansas City Chiefs fans will descend on the city to cheer on their team at training camp.
“Even my husband said the other day, ‘You just wait. It’s going to spike in the fall,’“ said Casey Jones who owns a clothing store downtown called Mod Podge Boutique.
Jones said she and her husband got the vaccine as soon as it became available, but she knows many of customers probably aren’t vaccinated.
“Of course the more people to get vaccinated, the more protected all of us are. But it’s up to the individual on whether they want to protect themselves,” Jones said.
Just down the block, Diane Cudworth was cutting mats for her frame shop. Cudworth, who had COVID-19 earlier this year, said she’s not vaccinated, but plans to be. She said she ignores the advice of vaccine deniers who believe it was produced too fast. Instead she listens to the experts.
“If the doctor says that the vaccine is good and will protect you, I have to go with what they say. I’m no expert,” she said.
Dana Oliver, a teacher, was waiting until school ended before she got vaccinated. Instead, on the first day of summer vacation, she got the virus. She said she wasn’t surprised by the county’s disturbingly low vaccination rate. She has friends who have warned her not to get vaccinated.
“I think a distrust in science in general right now is leading people to not want to be vaccinated at all,” Oliver said, adding that she had an uncle by marriage who spent his life in a wheelchair after contracting Polio as a child. She said he was a living example of the importance of vaccines.
As bad as it is in St. Joseph, the virus is even worse south of Kansas City in La Clede County where 152 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.
In nearby Greene County, the COVID-19 hospitalization numbers jumped from 31 in May to 153 in June. Nearly all those hospitalized had never received the vaccine.
For those who have been vaccinated and want life to return to normal, it’s frustrating to watch.
“I definitely wish more people here would get vaccinated,” said a St. Joseph businessman who knows if COVID-19 cases keep rising, life will get much worse and the hope for a return to normal times will disappear.