In the Rural Ozarks, Officials Fight Covid and Vaccine Doubts
Wendy Crase wasn’t necessarily against getting a Covid vaccine. The 39-year-old West Plains resident says she just didn’t think it was urgent. She had planned to look into it before making a decision. Then came the body aches, cough, and upset stomach.
She tested positive for COVID-19. That was just over a month ago, in late May. She was measuring her oxygen saturation level at home. When it dipped to a dangerously low level, she sought treatment at Ozarks Healthcare, the hospital in West Plains.
"The doctor at Ozarks Healthcare, when he asked me if if they needed to put me on a ventilator, could they? And of course I told them, 'Yes, do whatever you need to do to save my life.' And then he asked me, "If we needed to do lifesaving measures to save me, could they do that?' And I said, 'Of course.' I said, 'I, you know, I want to live.' And I think that's when I knew that it was worse than I thought," Crase said.
Hospital staff told her she needed to be transfered—and she thought she’d go by ambulance to Springfield. But they told her she might not make it if she went by ambulance. She was airlifted to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
"And then I was relying on so much oxygen that we only made it to Salem and we had to stop there and get more oxygen for me. And then we finished our trip to St. Louis," Crase said.
She says she doesn’t have any known preexisting health conditions other than being above her recommended weight.
She was in the ICU in St. Louis for 14 days, she said.
Only about 17.5% of Howell County's population of around 40,000 people have completed vaccination, according to the state health deaprtment’s Covid dashboard. That’s compared to the national average of about 46.8% fully vaccinated.
Crase says despite her time in intensive care fighting Covid, the majority of her friends and family members in Howell County are still not convinced the vaccine is for them.
"I think it's more of a 'wait and see.' They are worried, just like I am, about the unknown. The potential risk, maybe, that they don't know now, but that might come down the road," Crase said.
This vaccine hesitancy is, of course, anecdotal feedback. But it’s part of a clear, wider trend.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s ongoing research project on attitudes toward the vaccine, 24 percent of rural Americans say they will definitely not get vaccinated—more than three times the percentage of urban residents who are against it. And when you look at the data along political party lines, that percentage is even higher—27 percent—among Republicans vowing not to get the vaccine.
One of the benefits of living in a relatively free society like the United States is that there’s more transparency—including on medical research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a system dedicated to reporting and evaluating potential adverse reactions from any vaccine, including the Covid-19 vaccines.
Johnson & Johnson vaccinations were paused briefly this spring after the discovery of rare blood clots in a few young women.
Since April of athis year, there have been more than a thousand reports to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, of cases of inflammation of the heart—called myocarditis and pericarditis—happening after the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in the United States, according to the CDC’s website.
But that's out of more than 177 million people who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, according to the CDC.
Back in Howell County, Dr. Kendell Clarkston at Ozarks Healthcare in West Plains says yes, all vaccines bring risk. But in evaluating whether to get a vaccine, patients must weigh the risk of a severe complication from a vaccine—extremely rare—with the risk of severe complications of Covid—not nearly as rare.
As an example, Clarkston has seen and treated more patients with severe Covid complications than he can count. I ask him how many patients he’s seen with a severe reaction to the Covid vaccine.
"You know, I personally have not seen anybody with severe reaction to the vaccine," Clarkston said. "In the hospital itself, I do not think that we have admitted anybody with a vaccine related side effects"
Wendy Crase, the 39-year-old mother of two who was in the ICU with severe Covid-19 in West Plains and St. Louis, is still on oxygen constantly and struggles to make it to the next room. Even she isn’t sure whether she’ll eventually get the Covid vaccine down the road. She said she’ll make her decision after listening to her family doctor and researching the CDC website on the vaccine risks for herself.