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Metro East In ‘Backward Slide’ As COVID Cases, Hospitalizations Rise

A nurse holds a needle with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, Illinois. Vaccination rates in the Metro East have slowed in the past month.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
A nurse holds a needle with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, Illinois. Vaccination rates in the Metro East have slowed in the past month.

Some county leaders and medical professionals in the Metro East are urging residents to get vaccinated as new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations steadily rise in the region from the delta variant.

Both St. Clair and Madison counties posted seven-day average COVID positivity rates above 9% in recent days, a metric that has tripled for both counties in the past month. Illinois’ test positivity as a state is 3.3%.

“We’ve got spread going on. The virus has come back much more,” said St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern in a weekly coronavirus briefing yesterday.

St. Clair County officials also worry about the vaccination rate in the county, which increased only 2 percentage points in the past month to 41%. Madison County’s rate isn’t much higher, at 43%.

Some county leaders find it disappointing that more people haven’t been vaccinated.

“That was the best tool we had in our toolbox to try to get these numbers down. We were doing great,” said Herb Simmons, St. Clair County's Emergency Management Agency director.

And it’s not a lack of supply.

“The vaccines are very, very available at this point,” said Madison County Board Chair Kurt Prenzler. “They’re available pretty much everywhere.”

But residents might be reluctant to receive a dose because of the politicization of the coronavirus and vaccines, he said.

“I don’t think that’s helped people’s level of trust,” Prenzler said.

There are many reasons given for not being vaccinated, cited by people who largely fall into two groups: those who think vaccinations are harmful and those who don’t believe the coronavirus is real, said Dr. Jiggar Hindia, ICU medical director for Memorial Hospital in Belleville.

“The saddest thing is people who come into the hospital who tell you they didn’t believe it was a real disease and see them suffering, now realizing it’s real,” Hindia said.

Hindia called the virus trends in the region a “backward slide” that’s frustrating to those on the front lines.

“At this point there really is no good reason to not get a COVID vaccination,” he said. “This disease at this point is largely preventable. It is a shame that we have people coming back in that didn’t get vaccinated.”

Nearly all new hospitalizations that he sees in the ICU are people who have not received any vaccine dose, Hindia said.

County officials face the increasingly challenging task of making breakthroughs with unvaccinated residents.

“It’s just mind boggling that there are still people out there after we’ve had 486 of our county residents pass away to COVID-19,” Simmons said. “I don’t know what picture has to be painted to be clear that this is a real, true virus out there.”

Illinois Public Health Region Four, which includes the Metro East, is on the verge of crossing metrics that in the past triggered additional coronavirus restrictions. But Gov. J.B. Pritzker hasn’t said if or when he will implement new restrictions.

“Getting people vaccinated is the best thing we can do right now,” Pritzker told Capitol News Illinois. “Testing and vaccines are widely available. People need to utilize them.”

Local health officials defer to the state regarding implementing any new restrictions, and they haven’t heard of any imminent mitigations coming to the Metro East, Simmons said.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.