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In Springfield, Missouri, a Covid surge leads to uptick in vaccinations

“Everyone needs to realize that this is not just another wave like we saw before,” the lead infectious disease physician at Mercy Hospital Springfield said.

John Alarid, the pastor of Freedom City Church in Springfield, Missouri, and his wife, Hannah-Rose, said they were wary of the coronavirus vaccine because it had not undergone “long-term studies.” But the couple got the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine last week, driven in large part by the recent spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in their city.

In a video on Facebook, both admitted to a squeamishness with needles — the tattooed Alarid noting the irony as a former heroin user — but said “the risk is worth it considering Covid is taking out a lot of lives.”

“It’s either the unknown possibilities or the present reality,” Alarid said over the phone Wednesday. “People are dying. Most of the people in the hospital are unvaccinated, and so we decided that we needed to be an example in our community.”

As the delta variant continues to rapidly spread across the United States, it appears people who were once hesitant or skeptical of the Covid vaccines in the Springfield area have increasingly reconsidered. Leaders in Springfield credit a renewed push to convince those reluctant to get the shot, as well as residents having to face the stark realities of the recent outbreak.

John Alarid, the pastor of Freedom City Church in Springfield, Mo., his wife, Hannah-Rose, and their children.Hannah-Rose Alarid

Springfield officials have tapped faith leaders and community groups to encourage those who were undecided and doubtful, especially as vaccination rates slowed in recent months and the number of infections have overrun nearby hospitals and counties.

In response, it appears people in the region are making the decision to get vaccinated in growing numbers. Over the first three weeks of July, residents in Greene County, where Springfield is the county seat, have already received more first-dose vaccinations than they did through all of June, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Neighboring Christian County, another Covid hot spot, has outstripped its June numbers by nearly 30 percent.

“We almost ran out of vaccine about a week ago just because the increase we saw didn’t match what we expected,” said Dr. Matthew Stinson, vice president of medical and behavioral health services at Jordan Valley Community Health Center, which has provided nearly 97,000 Covid vaccine doses in the region. “I think there is a growing fear of getting Covid that is overwhelming the fear of the vaccine.”

In an echo of events in March 2020 and after, Springfield is beginning to face shutdowns and quarantines again.

Alarid said one of the recovery homes his church manages experienced a Covid outbreak in recent weeks, requiring residents to quarantine. On Tuesday, the church had to cancel its Festival of Hope for the second year in a row, after holding it for the previous nine years. On Wednesday, Alarid said a fundraising banquet for the recovery home that was scheduled in two weeks will now take place online, instead of in person as planned.

These choices, along with his decision to get vaccinated and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in his church, has led to pushback from members within the congregation. Some people have left the church, and he said he’s heard theories ranging from the vaccine containing alien blood to it being “the mark of the beast.”

“I got some pretty crazy and negative Facebook messages and emails, but we believe caring for the community means protecting the safety of our people in every way,” Alarid said. “We’re not just protecting people spiritually, but also mentally, emotionally and physically. We want to provide a safe environment. It’s just a shame that this has become politicized.”

Doctors and other leaders in the region said politicization has become one of the toughest hurdles to overcome, but they also said the desire to receive the vaccination has increased as people in Springfield and the surrounding area see their family members and friends get sick.

People line up to receive Covid-19 vaccines at the James River Church West Campus in Springfield, Mo. during a vaccine clinic put on by Jordan Valley Community Health Center on July 12, 2021.Nathan Papes / Springfield News-Leader / USA Today Network

In part, the renewed interest comes as regional hospitals are increasingly overwhelmed by sick coronavirus patients. Medical facilities are again seeing their resources stretched to the breaking point, causing many to put out calls for ventilators and support staff.

“We’re all exhausted,” said Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, an infectious disease physician at a Veterans Affairs hospital in St. Louis and member of the city’s board of health. “Even I started to believe that things were going to ease up, things were going to get better for me professionally and personally. Then delta came, and it’s a gut punch.”

Mercy Hospital Springfield announced Wednesday it would open its third coronavirus ward as the number of Covid patients it was treating rose to 146 — more than half under the age of 60. Its peak number of hospitalized patients during the winter surge was 113 on Dec. 28.

Dr. William Sistrunk, lead infectious disease physician at Mercy Hospital Springfield, said more than 90 percent of the strains they now report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the delta variant, which he said is more contagious and “more aggressive as far as causing severe illness” in unvaccinated individuals.

“Everyone needs to realize that this is not just another wave like we saw before,” Sistrunk said. “It’s going to require more health care utilization because we’re seeing more patients going to the ICU or rapidly getting worse. This is a much more aggressive strain that’s leading to more lung disease and greater oxygen support needs.”

“This isn’t just going to be happening in Springfield: This is coming for the whole nation; this is coming to your community,” Sistrunk warned. “We all need to get ready for that.”