KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The email from a nurse manager about a patient’s death from COVID-19 “grabbed me,” CoxHealth system director of public relations said.
It told the vivid story of what health care workers in the Ozarks are facing as hospital beds are filling again, this time with cases from the delta variant. The numbers are skyrocketing in Branson and rural areas, and the vaccination rate is so low it’s made national news.
So Kaitlyn McConnell wrote about the email and posted it on the health system’s Facebook page Wednesday night.
“A patient we had yesterday is tragically not with us today,” her post read. “… A COVID-19 nurse manager shared with me a very impactful story from a patient in his 40s in the COVID unit who passed last night. We had him for a week and, unfortunately, he continued to deteriorate to the point requiring intubation.
“Prior to intubating, he became very tearful. He told the nurses he didn’t think he needed to get vaccinated and now wishes he had, and he was so sorry.”
Since the pandemic began early last year, McConnell said CoxHealth, which operates six hospitals in the Ozarks, has aimed to be transparent and inform the public on what health care workers are seeing with the virus. That communication is key, she said.
“This is one person, but it is the example of the worst case scenario of this pandemic,” McConnell said Friday morning. “Hearing about not just statistics, but this very real person really resonated with me. The sentiment was he wished he had made a different choice.”
Sometimes the transparency and communication from medical and hospital officials can include straight, blunt talk to clear up widely-spread misinformation that has kept people from getting vaccinated. Because, as McConnell put it: “We’re seeing people dying.”
On Thursday, hours after McConnell posted about the man dying from Covid, CoxHealth CEO Steve Edwards took to Twitter. He tweeted that a recent 32 percent positive rate of symptomatic tests was “very concerning” and that four children, one as young as “a few weeks old,” had been hospitalized with the virus.
“If you are making wildly disparaging comments about the vaccine, and have no public health expertise, you may be responsible for someone’s death,” he tweeted. “Shut up.”
According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, Missouri had the highest rate in the country of cases of the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant.
While about one-fourth of all new cases in the U.S. are the delta variant, CoxHealth recently had 50 of 56 cases sent to the lab come back as the highly contagious variant.
In Taney County — home of Branson — 32 percent of the symptomatic testing from CoxHealth labs came back positive for the current week. That’s up from 16 percent during the last week of May.
The county is among those in the Ozarks that lags far behind in vaccinations. Just 1 in 4 Taney County residents have been fully vaccinated. No county in southwest Missouri has more than 35 percent of its residents fully vaccinated. All but two counties — Greene and Dade — have less than 30 percent.
The low numbers of people getting vaccinated “is certainly playing a role in how high our hospitalizations are,” said Ashley Kimberling Casad, CoxHealth’s vice president of clinical services and assistant incident commander for COVID response
“Most of the people being hospitalized haven’t been vaccinated,” Kimberling Casad said.
On Thursday, the health department in Stone County — which is adjacent to Taney and houses Silver Dollar City — took to Facebook to inform residents of its own spike.
“At this time we have 12 Stone County residents hospitalized with Covid-19, 11 of those 12 hospitalized cases are unvaccinated,” the post read. “… These numbers are clear the vaccine is working. These numbers are hand counted and not computer generated. This is real data from our county.”
The post ended with a plea to get vaccinated.
One comment on the Stone County post shows that public health officials still have significant work to do before some are convinced. Especially in southwest Missouri.
“No thanks. I’m not a lab rat,” one man wrote. “Wait and see what the side effects are. You’re not changing how my DNA works.”
By Friday morning, McConnell’s Facebook post about the recent death had been shared 1,600 times. Of the more than 130 comments accompanying it, a few people pushed back at the information.
“How dare you scare people into getting this poison,” one woman wrote. “No matter your stance, scaring people into making a medical decision is wrong.”
But many more thanked CoxHealth for sharing the story.
“I am so sorry to his family,” one person posted. “I beg each person reading this to please get vaccinated, we shouldn’t be losing so many loved ones.”
Negativity from some can not stop medical and hospital professionals from sharing the facts, McConnell said.
“It’s hard not to be frustrated because you want people to be safe and understand the seriousness of what we’re facing,” McConnell said. “But even if we have to say the same thing over and over again, hopefully it helps one person see what the truth is.”
She told the public that goal at the end of her Wednesday night post about the man in his 40s who died:
“We share his story not to scare, but to inform,” McConnell wrote. “Please learn from what others wish they could tell you. Please vaccinate.”