By Nate Blackford, Mosaic Medical Center-Maryville president

This week I’ve been sent dozens of articles with concerning headlines about rising COVID hospitalizations, hospital employee frustrations and burnout and alarming unvaccinated rates from around the country and the region.

My good friend and former colleague Dr. Stevan Whitt is MU Health Care’s chief clinical officer and specializes in critical care medicine, infectious disease and internal medicine.  Steve’s article “Missourians are dying from COVID-19 misinformation” was published in the Columbia Daily Tribune on July 14.  Steve is both smart and practical and I found his words to be wise and impactful.

“In May, a group of doctors [were] attending a baseball game when a man sitting nearby overheard the conversation and eagerly shared his thoughts on COVID-19. He was in his 60s, wasn’t vaccinated and wasn’t overly concerned about the virus.

‘It doesn’t even affect people like us, right?’ he said. When the physicians told him that intensive care units were full of people like him and that he definitely should get vaccinated, he responded, ‘But the vaccines don’t even work, right?’

“The group tried to change his mind, but there was a lot of misinformation to overcome, and a baseball game only lasts nine innings.

“As an infectious disease specialist for the last 21 years, I’m sharing this because I run into too many people like that baseball fan who are making the potentially deadly mistake of underestimating both the risk of COVID-19 infection and the benefit of the vaccine. Many people believe vaccine myths or fixate on the exceptions to the rule, essentially choosing to swim with the sharks rather than get in the lifeboat.

“And as someone who grew up in agriculture country and still does a little farming in my free time, it hurts to see the rural parts of our state, where vaccine rates are lowest, being hit the hardest.

“Missouri’s vaccination rate is about 40 percent, and our infection rate is among the nation’s highest. As chief clinical officer of MU Health Care, I see what my colleagues at other hospitals around the state see: ICUs filling up at their highest levels since last fall. We’re also getting younger patients, the least likely age group to be vaccinated, who are extremely sick as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to tear through our state.

“Delta, which is more easily transmitted than other variants of COVID-19, was first identified in Missouri in May. What effect has it had? From January through May, Missouri had a total of five deaths attributed to COVID-19. In June, the state had 37 deaths from COVID-19.

“I realize that some people have made up their minds about the COVID-19 vaccine, and it would require someone more eloquent than me to convince them otherwise. But for those of you open to the idea of being vaccinated, I want to lay out the facts so you can make an informed decision.

“First, let’s address the benefits of the vaccine.

“You might hear on the news or from friends about people suffering ‘breakthrough infections’ after being vaccinated. They do happen. But you have to remember that the reason these cases are newsworthy at all is because they are so unusual. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 infections, and in the rare cases in which vaccinated people are infected, the vaccine protects them against serious illness. At MU Health Care, the overwhelming majority of patients hospitalized because of COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“Second, let’s look at the safety of the vaccine.

“As of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed three deaths caused by the vaccine — all of them people who suffered blood clots after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Compare that to the more than 600,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 infection. The risks of vaccination versus infection are in no way equal for any person of any age.

“For those worried that we don’t know the potential long-term side effects of a new vaccine, keep in mind that we are now more than a year removed from the first clinical trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and the CDC still hasn’t found long-term side effects. Over the history of vaccine development, side effects generally occur within six weeks of receiving a dose. Nobody can say with absolute certainty that side effects won’t crop up more than a year later, but again, vaccine history tells us it’s a remote possibility while the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 infection is a reality we deal with every day.

“What is most frustrating is that the current wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths is preventable with vaccines that are almost miraculous in their effectiveness, not to mention safe, widely available and free to the public. It’s a great injustice that people are dying from misinformation.”

At Mosaic, our positivity rates are rising. Mosaic has more than 50 COVID inpatients in the system, four of which are in Maryville. It is clear we are not done with COVID. If you have not already done so, please consider getting the vaccine. Let’s work together to keep northwest Missouri from being just another headline.