Kansas City health providers are seeing ‘little to no interest’ in latest COVID vaccine
The CDC reports that only 16% of adults and 7% of children have received the updated COVID vaccine. Although hospitalizations are currently low in Kansas City, providers warn the virus can still be deadly.
Alexandria Thompson’s job is to convince the most vulnerable people in her community to get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19.
She can offer education, transportation and up to $50 in gift cards to entice people to get the shots. But, she says, often that is not enough.
“I just tend to lead with the flu shot, and then I’ll say COVID right after,” said Thompson, the lead canvasser for G.O.T.V. (Get Out the Vaccines), an initiative of the Kansas City advocacy organization Communities Creating Opportunity. “Many times, people say no to the COVID shot and, a lot of times, people say yes to the flu shot.”
Going on four years since the SARS-CoV-2 virus devastated lives and economies worldwide, health care providers and public health advocates say a growing number of people seem to have lost sight of just how dangerous the virus can be. Perhaps as a result, most people aren’t rolling up their sleeves for the latest vaccine boost.
“There is little to no interest in it,” said Carole Thomas, vice president of clinical operations for KC Care Health Center.
Nationally, just 16% of adults and 7% of children had received the latest version of the shot by the start of December, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Kansas City Health Department administered 1,420 doses between September and early December, fewer than the number given in just one week during the height of the pandemic.
“People tend to treat COVID as a cold or just another respiratory illness that’s going to be here to stay,” said Betty Criss, public health nursing supervisor with the Wyandotte County Health Department. “But we still need to take measures to prevent the spread of COVID. We still need to take measures to protect our own health and our own family’s health.”
When Criss sees available COVID vaccine appointments going unscheduled week after week, she knows a lot of people have forgotten that COVID can still kill.
Although COVID cases are a fraction of what they were three and four years ago, people still end up in the hospital with the disease. On Dec. 8, for example, the University of Kansas Health System had 22 patients hospitalized for the virus. University Health had 13. And St. Luke’s Health System had 38.
Besides apathy, health providers said, people refuse the vaccine for political reasons, because of general distrust in the health system or because of blatantly inaccurate information they stumble across from the internet and other media.
“Because COVID happened and caused us to be socially isolated from each other …a lot of people went down these rabbit holes,” Thomas said. “A lot of people have very, very strong feelings about it.”
Health experts warn that ongoing vaccine avoidance could add up to tragic outcomes for vulnerable patients and, potentially, lead to another devastating public health crisis.
Besides COVID, the country is vulnerable to outbreaks from illnesses, like flu, hepatitis B, pneumococcal disease and measles because too few Americans get vaccinated, said Cecelia Thomas, a senior government relations manager at Trust for America’s Health, a public health policy research and advocacy organization in Washington.
“It’s not if there will be another pandemic,” she said, “but when.”
During the pandemic, Congress spent heavily and quickly to shore up the country’s ability to make and distribute vaccines and to sell people on the science that supports widespread vaccinations. But that emergency funding is running out.
Thomas said federal spending on immunization efforts has fallen short for a decade and remains precarious. Last year, the federal government doled out $325 million to states, cities and territories, including $5.9 million to Missouri and $2.8 million to Kansas.
A U.S. Senate committee has called for spending $682 million next year, including the money sent to local government and tax dollars that stay with the CDC. The House isn’t expected to act on the funding until January.
Thomas contends the country needs to spend closer to $1 billion. “It’s a snowball,” she said. Health agencies “don’t have funding, so they can’t hire people. If they don’t hire people, they can’t put out education. They can’t administer the vaccine.”
Ultimately, she said, “It all leads down to another big spread” of a deadly virus.
That’s exactly what local hospitals want to avoid. Health care administrators say people need to get the message that COVID — while much less deadly today — can still kill and lead to long-term health issues. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that by the end of 2022, 6.9 percent of Americans had suffered from long COVID, defined as symptoms that last three or more months after an initial infection.
“Complacency is great until you get really sick,” said Steven W. Stites, a pulmonologist and chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System.
It’s hard to know exactly how the virus will hit individual patients, he said. If it’s been a long time since you were exposed or vaccinated, your body may not recognize the changed virus and have a harder time fighting it off.
“The more changes (the virus) has undergone since the last time you had COVID will really help dictate how fast your body can respond to it,” Stites said. “It’s like seeing some old person you haven’t seen for 20 years. They look so darn different you can’t recognize them.”
Staying up to date on the vaccine, even if you’re healthy, will help your body win the fight. And, importantly, it’ll help keep the virus from spreading to more vulnerable people.
“The people who are young and healthy, they may get it and they may do OK,” said Mark Steele, executive chief clinical officer with University Health. “But they may get it and they may give it to somebody who’s not young and healthy.”
That’s why Thompson of Communities Creating Opportunity will continue to fight rumors and convince people to get the latest shot.
Since September, the G.O.T.V. campaign has led to about 200 people getting the shot.
People who are 65 or older or have a disability can qualify for two $25 Walmart gift cards — one for each shot they receive. In addition to getting the vaccines, participants have to fill out a survey to receive the gift cards, which are funded by the Center for Popular Democracy through a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The program has funding to reach 800 to 1,000 participants in the Kansas City area.
Thompson said it’s particularly important to make progress vaccinating Black people, a group that was hit extremely hard in the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of distrust between the medical care system and the Black community because of things that have happened in the past with medicine,” Thompson said. She pointed to the Tuskegee experiment, a federally funded effort that studied 400 Black men with untreated syphilis for 40 years without giving them any information about the study.
That’s one reason accurate information is key to the work Thompson is doing.
“We try our hardest to spread education because we want people to still get the shot next year,” she said. “We don’t want them to just do it one year because they’re getting incentivized.”