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As Missouri Vaccination Rates Slow, Doctors Warn Of Constant Coronavirus Presence

Crowds arrive to receive Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccines at St. Louis Community College - Forest Park in St. Louis on Thursday, March 25, 2021. The mass vaccination was able to put 3000 shots into arms in eight hours.
Bill Greenblatt
Crowds arrive to receive Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park in St. Louis in March. Vaccination rates in the state have slowed since reaching a high point in mid-April.

Daily COVID-19 vaccinations in Missouri have decreased by nearly 65% since reaching their high point in mid-April, and the slowing has doctors skeptical of whether the state can vaccinate enough people to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

Public health experts have said for months that at least 70% of the state’s population will need to receive the vaccine to reach herd immunity, the point at which enough people are protected that the virus is stopped in its tracks.

Nearly half of the state’s adults have received at least one dose, buta recent poll from the Missouri Hospital Association found more than one-fourth of Missourians don’t plan to receive the shot.

“It kind of means that the virus is not going to be eradicated from the population,” said Dr. Farrin Manian, an infectious disease physician and chair of the Department of Medicine at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. “It’s still going to be an ongoing transmission.”

Even if the likelihood of reaching the threshold for herd immunity appears to be decreasing, Manian still thinks it’s vital for health workers to continue to work on vaccinating as many people as they can.

“There’s still a lot to be gained in doing what we’re doing with vaccination efforts … even if we don’t get to this herd immunity number," he said. “It’s not a switch on and off kind of thing, we can gain a lot from just being able to keep up with our efforts, even if we don’t get to that number.”

The state is already seeing the effects of vaccinations on hospitalizations and case numbers, said Robert Knodell, acting director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“Our infectious disease experts and our partners at the CDC tell us that the question of whether or when Missouri will reach that herd immunity level is really up to the public and the choices they make when it comes to vaccination,” he said.

Hospitalizations and new cases are on the decline in Missouri, he said. That’s directly a result of vaccinations, particularly among the state’s most elderly and sick residents, Knodell said.

Older residents and people who live in urban and suburban areas have been the most willing to receive the vaccine, he said. But many younger, healthier people are still reluctant to sign up for an appointment.

The state health department is moving away from large-scale mass vaccination sites to focus on making the vaccines available at walk-in appointments in pharmacies and clinics, Knodell said. The more convenient it is to receive a shot, the more likely it is for people who are on the fence about getting the vaccine to take the plunge.

Many infectious disease experts think it’s starting to look like the coronavirus will never completely be gone due to its continuing evolution into more contagious strains as well as people’s unwillingness to receive vaccines. Instead, it will likely be a persistent, low-level threat with sporadic outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates, said Manian, of Mercy Hospital.

“There’s this concept that we can’t really get over this pandemic completely unless we have this magical herd immunity, and to a certain extent it is true, that you like to go for perfection,” he said. “On the other hand, the higher the number of people that are vaccinated are immune, even if you’re not reaching herd immunity, the less mortality there’s going to be from the virus.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.