Just a few weeks before COVID-19 vaccines became available, Teddi Van Kam got sick from the virus.
The director of the Crawford County health department, in far southeast Kansas, was laid out for four weeks. As the pandemic became increasingly dire in her community, she was too sick to work.
“I was scared,” Van Kam said. “I couldn’t breathe.”
By the time she recovered, the vaccines were available. She got her shot and went back to tackling the pandemic.
And she became a vaccine evangelist. But lately, converts have become hard to find. A year and a half into the outbreak, less than half of Crawford County residents are fully inoculated with a potentially life-saving vaccine.
“You wish you could convey to them how bad this could be,” Van Kam said, “but you have to be careful how you do those things.”
Now, she faces a new challenge: convincing vaccine-hesitant, pandemic-weary people in her community that the danger remains, that things are getting scarier.
“It’s hard,” Van Kam said, “to protect people that don’t want to be protected.”
The more contagious Delta variant is already fueling outbreaks among unvaccinated people in southwest Missouri that are filling up hospital wards, straining resources and claiming lives.
As cases begin to spike in neighboring parts of Kansas, Van Kam and other public health officials are trying to find ways to reinvigorate vaccination campaigns before the new variant overwhelms local health care systems.
The Delta variant has quickly become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in Kansas.
In early May, the state department of health reported that it found this new variant in 3% of all the positive COVID tests that it analyzed. One month later, Delta appeared in roughly half of those tests.
The latest figures now show the Delta variant is responsible for 92% of all positive COVID tests being sequenced by the state department of health in Kansas.
Scientists believe this variant is roughly 60% more contagious than the Alpha variant — the previously dominant version, which was already more infectious than the original strain. Recent studies have shown that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are highly effective at protecting people from the Delta variant and other variants of concern.
But fewer than 40% of Kansans have received their full dose of any vaccine, according to state data. And vaccinations have slowed to a crawl statewide.
Since peaking near 40,000 daily doses in the early spring, the state is now giving out less than 5,000 vaccinations per day.
In rural areas, part of the challenge is refocusing community attention on the dangers of the pandemic after weeks of low COVID case numbers prompted people to lower their guard.
For example, Neosho County in southeast Kansas reported zero active COVID-19 cases early last month for the first time in more than a year. Christy Hoerle, an epidemiology nurse with the county health department in Chanute, said that understandably led to a shift in how closely some people in the community were paying attention to the need for vaccinations.
“When the (COVID case) numbers went down,” Hoerle said, “it’s kind of like it’s up and gone.”
Hoerle said the county of roughly 16,000 people went two or three weeks without administering hardly any first-dose vaccination shots. This week, Neosho County reported 17 active cases, and the Delta variant is the most common strain.
But Hoerle said many people still don’t realize the new risks the strain brings.
“I don’t think in our small little rural area…that people totally understand the difference in the variants,” she said. “So education is going to be key.”
In addition to posting county COVID case updates every few days on social media, the Neosho health department recently put a release in the local newspaper explaining how the Delta variant’s high rate of transmission endangers the community and how increasing the vaccination rate could limit that spread.
“I want people to understand that we can stop this,” Hoerle said. “Let’s get it stopped before we get back to where we were at a year ago.”
Next door in Crawford County, the Delta variant has gained a similar foothold. In mid-May, the county of nearly 40,000 people reported only three new COVID cases.
“We were thrilled,” Van Kam said. “That entire month, we were in single digits.”
Soon after, the Delta variant began to fuel new outbreaks in nearby Joplin, Missouri, where Van Kam said many Crawford County residents commute for work. Last week, the southeast Kansas county recorded 51 new COVID cases, most of them infected with the Delta strain.
Crawford County has seen a handful of cases among people who were vaccinated. But those people had only mild symptoms. Van Kam said all of the recent COVID hospitalizations have been unvaccinated people.
“The vaccine works because it keeps you out of the hospital,” she said. “It keeps you from dying.”
She said the county has seen interest in vaccinations start to inch up as the Delta variant grabs more headlines.
For most of the people who are choosing to get their first shot now, Van Kam said the tipping point came down to one of three things: learning how contagious the Delta variant is; being pushed by family members to get vaccinated; or finally feeling confident in the safety of the vaccine after months of widespread inoculations.
To build on that momentum, the county began promoting a new video message on area television stations that features a local emergency physician explaining how the Delta variant is different from previous strains. Van Kam’s team developed new social media campaigns urging residents to get vaccinated and plans to offer COVID shots at the upcoming county fair.
But even with the more contagious variant spreading, Van Kam said she still sees vaccine resistance in her community, particularly among people ages 25 to 45.
Her advice for other rural counties who haven’t seen a rise in Delta variant cases in their backyards yet? Get ready now.
“It’s out there,” Van Kam said. “And it’s probably not going to miss anybody.”