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Jefferson County struggles to vaccinate residents as coronavirus cases hit record high

The Jefferson County Health Department on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Arnold, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Jefferson County health officials say they're still struggling to get the county's COVID-19 vaccination rate above 50%.

More than 50,000 people in Jefferson County have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, the county’s health department announced this week.

Jefferson County’s level of community transmission remains very high, with about one in every three coronavirus tests coming back positive. The county has the highest rate of new cases in the St. Louis metropolitan region.

“Anecdotally, there’s not many people I talk to on a regular basis that don’t know someone if not themselves who is sick at this point,” said Brianne Zwiener, a communications specialist at the Jefferson County Health Department.

The largest barrier the health department is trying to overcome is a lack of confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, she said.

Jefferson County lags behind St. Louis and St. Louis County in vaccinations. Just below half of the county’s residents have received doses of the vaccine.

The health department has conducted mobile clinics and business visits to offer residents and workers the vaccine but still is seeing the vaccination rate go up only about half a percentage point each week.

“We have plenty of vaccine, plenty of vaccination sites,” Zwiener said. “I don’t think access is the bigger issue. I think it has a lot to do with disinformation, misinformation, or people are on the fence and they just aren’t sure.”

The department is trying to use social media to connect with people and answer their questions, she said, but “I don’t think it’s having nearly the large effect we’re wanting it to have.”

“It’s a little bit more of coming back to the drawing board ,” Zwiener said. “What’s making our community hesitate, what are their concerns?”

Hospitals were swamped with COVID-19 patients in January, said Dr. Chandra Dommaraju, an infectious disease specialist at Mercy Hospital Jefferson in Festus. But he said those numbers are starting to decrease.

Earlier this month, so many people have been hospitalized throughout the region that it was impossible for the smaller Mercy Jefferson to transfer patients to larger hospitals for more advanced treatments.

“Even this month we could not transfer people from this hospital where we need more care,” Dommaraju said.

Because so many people have gotten sick in the past few months with the fast-spreading omicron variant, it’s likely cases and hospitalizations will continue to decrease.

“A lot of people are getting infected, so we’re getting immunity,” he said. “Nationwide, total cases are going on, and hopefully there will be fewer variants.”

Like Zweiner, Dommaraju said he spends much of his time persuading patients to get vaccinated against the virus and educating them about the vaccine. Many people have been hearing false information, he said.

“I understand their situation, and if I were not a medical person, seeing all this information, even I would be scared, too,” Dommaraju said.

Some people only decide to get the shot after they are sick with COVID-19 and hospitalized, he said.

 Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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