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Kansas City's Vaccination Rates Are Even Worse Than Some Delta Hotspots In Southwest Missouri

Heather Colaizzi, a Family Nurse Practitioner at the Samuel Rodgers Health Clinic retrieves a sample during drive-through COVID- 19 testing in the parking lot of Independence Boulevard Christian Church on Gladstone Blvd., in Kansas City Missouri. The testing site, run by Samuel U Rodgers Health Clinic, was part of the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department's efforts to track the illness.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
A nurse administers a COVID- 19 test in the parking lot of Independence Boulevard Christian Church on Gladstone Blvd.

Vaccination rates in Kansas City, Missouri, and some metro counties are lower than in Joplin, where a Delta-variant surge is driving one of the highest new case rates in the state.

Health experts have blamed the still-growing surge of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Missouri on low vaccinations rates, driven by skepticism about the virus and vaccine safety.

However, vaccinations rates in the Kansas City area are also below the state average, suggesting that the metro area remains at a higher risk of infection than residents might realize.

“There’s no safe haven unless you have a substantial proportion of your population immunized,” said Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, infectious disease specialist and dean of the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Medicine.

The average number of new COVID cases in Missouri has climbed to more than 1,300 per day, the state's highest rate since the start of year. More than 1,100 people are currently hospitalized with the virus in Missouri.

Even though health experts say that around 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to stop the coronavirus, Missouri’s rate of completed vaccinations has slowed to just 39.6%.

The rate in Kansas City, Missouri, however, is even lower, at just 37.6%. That's among the lowest rates for urban regions in the state.

In comparison, the small southwestern Missouri city of Joplin, currently one of the state’s worst COVID hotspots, reports that 42.5% of residents have completed their vaccinations.

Boone County, where Columbia is located, and the St. Louis area counties of St. Charles and St. Louis also have higher vaccination rates than Kansas City.

Other Kansas City metro rates are even farther behind, including Platte County (27.5%), Clay County (32.2%) and Cass County (32.2%). All of these rates are lower than in Greene County, where Springfield hospitals leaders say they have maxed out on capacity and staff due to COVID patients.

Many patients filling hospitals in Joplin and Springfield come from rural areas with especially low vaccination rates.

Jackson says that cases in the Kansas City area likely haven't surged in the same way because of a greater percentage of city residents are at least partially vaccinated, and because extremely low vaccination rates of less than 25% have allowed the Delta variant to gain steam quickly in some southern Missouri counties.

But case rates have begun to increase again in the Kansas City area, and even though the risks of severe illness are far lower for vaccinated people, everyone should exercise caution.

“The way I look at this is, every encounter you have in public, you’re going to have to do a risk assessment,” Jackson says. “Everybody has to be aware. Even those that are vaccinated.”

Younger Missourians appear to be especially slow in getting shots. Though vaccination rates for Missourians aged 65 and older approach 75%, only about a third of people 25 to 34 have completed their shots. Just over a quarter of the 15 to 24 group and only 16% of 12 to 14 year-olds have been fully vaccinated.

State reports show that, while vaccination rates began to pick up in south and southwest Missouri starting in mid-June, the rate in the Kansas City area remained essentially flat.

Daily vaccinations have continued to decline statewide since mid-April. Last week, around 7,000 Missouri residents were getting shots each day.

As case numbers continue to rise, Jackson says Missouri's surge may continue for much of the summer, depending on the actions resident take.

“We’re going to be faced with this easily for two, three, four weeks,” Jackson says. “What happens is, viruses spread until a significant amount of the population has been infected or there’s a significant amount the population that’s protected.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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