Unvaccinated tourists are pouring into Missouri as Covid rates skyrocket. Our state is terrified

In some regions of south-central Missouri, like Pulaski County, only 11.9% of residents are fully vaccinated, and it’s not for lack of supply

Anne McCarthy
Missouri
Wednesday 14 July 2021 00:57
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Ten years ago in Paris, I was chatting with a woman at a party who grew up in California; when I told her I was from Missouri, she twisted her face and said, “There’s not much culture in Missouri, is there?”

Annoyed as I may have been – and I was – it didn’t rattle me. Midwesterners are strong, industrious, and thick-skinned, despite what our generally polite and accommodating demeanor might otherwise suggest. Her comment was par for the Midwest course.

I’ve heard my home state of Missouri called “misery,” “flyover country,” and worse. And of course, the barbs always come from non-Missourians. Hollywood doesn’t portray us well, either; from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to Ozark to Winter’s Bone, my home state often looks shambolic on the silver screen.

Yet people in the pantheon of American culture have called Missouri home: Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, Misty Copeland, and even Brad Pitt. Our barbecue gives Tennessee and Texas a run for their money; from Chuck Berry to Nelly to Sheryl Crow, Missouri continuously holds court on the music map; and Kansas City, MO, even has the most fountains in the world outside of Rome.

But this isn’t meant to be a defense of Missouri or a decade-overdue rebuttal to that patronizing party-goer. It’s a present-day inventory of what’s happening in the state right now and why it matters.

Missouri is seeing a surge in Covid-19 cases, particularly in the southern region of the state, at a time when locals want to be outside enjoying summer after lockdowns, and out-of-state visitors are piling in to popular tourist destinations like Branson and the Lake of the Ozarks. Noeli Lytton, an educator in St. Louis, is concerned by this. “Unvaccinated folks are at risk, seriously, coming to Missouri right now,” says Lytton.

Branson, a popular family vacation destination in southern Missouri, welcomes over 9 million visitors annually, and 65% of its visitors are from out of state. This tourist influx concerns Reverend Dr Cassandra Gould, the Executive Director of Missouri Faith Voices, an organization working to improve the quality of life for Missourians. She says, “Missourians are in grave danger. [We’re] concerned about those who are most vulnerable including Black people, other people of color, and our neighbors in Southwest... Unvaccinated visitors to popular tourist spots like Branson and the Lake of Ozarks put all of us at risk. The rush to ‘get back to normal’ is at the expense of those who are most vulnerable in our state.”

“Things are getting really bad again,” agrees Heidi Lucas, the State Director of the Missouri Nurses Association, of the state’s surge. “It’s to the point where our nurses are feeling: ‘What’s the endgame?’… There’s no end in sight right now. And our vaccination rates are abysmal.”

The Missouri health department’s data show that 45.3% of residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine, while 55.5% of the US population has had one dose. Thuy Ho, an Infectious Disease Nurse Practitioner in Missouri, says, “The majority of recent hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 are among individuals who are not vaccinated. My greatest concern, especially with the delta variant, is for the vulnerable population and younger children who are not able to receive the vaccine yet.” Increased tourist traffic may well put Missouri’s most vulnerable at even greater risk.

In some regions of south-central Missouri, like Pulaski County, only 11.9% of residents are fully vaccinated, and it’s not for lack of supply. “The vaccine is fully available for those who want it,” says Lucas, “but there’s so much misinformation out there about the vaccine that people in Missouri aren’t getting it. We’re battling vaccine hesitancy. Things were getting back to normal earlier this year; we were starting to plan events. Now that’s all up in the air again. I worry about my friends and family getting Covid as well, or for it to have another mutation – something that vaccines can’t touch.”

Mutations like the delta variant coupled with vaccine hesitancy led to a surge in the state’s case numbers, with a near doubling of hospitalizations due to Covid-19 in southwestern Missouri from May to June. Dr Kitty Newsham, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training at Saint Louis University, says, “The delta variant spread quickly in areas where mask use and vaccination rates are low. We also have unvaccinated Missourians and unvaccinated travelers assuming the relaxed rules outlined for vaccinated people.” Voicing the discouragement many Missourians feel, Dr Newsham adds, “It is frustrating that we seem to have squandered the efforts and sacrifices of so many who have worked to mitigate the virus here.”

One vulnerable Missourian, Joel Achtenberg, a 74-year-old diabetic, says, “It has been nice to feel that masks and other restrictions have eased, and now things seem even worse in Missouri. So, out come the masks again!”

It doesn’t help that Missouri Governor Mike Parson seems in denial about the severity of the pandemic in our state. He tweeted against the federal government’s encouraging inoculation, saying, “I have directed our health department to let the federal government know that sending government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination would NOT be an effective OR a welcome strategy in Missouri!” Less than 19 hours later, he changed his tune, highlighting the importance of vaccinations and tweeting: “Vaccination continues to be the best method of COVID-19 prevention, and we encourage anyone age 12 and up to be vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them.”

This is the same man who, earlier in the pandemic, refused to issue a statewide mask mandate. I’m loath to call any Missourian an embarrassment, but in this case of unreliable leadership amid a global pandemic, I’ll make an exception for Governor Parson. And let’s throw insurrection-flame-fanner, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, into the exception pool, too.

Missouri has its flaws and faults, but we have the opportunity to turn things around deftly and decisively with Covid-19, and it starts with more people getting vaccinated. Our sobriquet is the “Show Me State,” after all. Let’s show our country that we’re committed to emerging from this pandemic and improving life for our fellow Missourians by acting with the collective in mind, and showing up to get the vaccine.

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