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What Will It Take To Overcome Vaccine Hesitancy In Rural Missouri?

Dr. Mary Hastings, right, adjusts a blood pressure cuff on patient Dana Petzold's arm. Petzold, a resident of St. Clair, Missouri, has become a regular patient at the Rural Parish Clinic.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
A patient is treated at the Rural Parish Clinic, a Catholic nonprofit that offers free medical care to low-income, uninsured adults out of a 40-foot converted van.

More than half of Missouri’s population has not been fully vaccinated — despite months of warnings from public health officials that the coronavirus would resurge if not enough people were inoculated.

Now, heading into August and a new school year, the delta variant accounts for four out of five coronavirus cases in the United States. Public health experts believe that vaccine hesitancy and refusal are largely to blame for the proliferation of the new variant and that infection rates will continue to increase if vaccination rates remain stagnant.

So, what will it take to overcome vaccine hesitancy in Missouri, particularly in the rural areas of the state that are hit hardest by the delta variant?

Washington University School of Medicine instructor Beth Prusaczyk would like the U.S. to learn from recent history. As she asserted in a recent paper, public health officials should look to lessons learned from the push to get children the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in rural areas.

That includes the use of religious institutions as disseminators of health information, leverage of social media to disseminate information about vaccines, and an increase in mobile, discrete distribution sites for vaccinations.

Hear the discussion
Melanie Hall and Beth Prusaczyk join St. Louis on the Air

Prusaczyk joined St. Louis on the Air to share what past case studies can tell us about how to effectively communicate vaccine information and implement successful vaccination programs in rural areas.

Melanie Hall, a Springfield woman whose 12-year-old daughter was hospitalized in mid-July due to a COVID-19 infection, also joined the conversation.

“The ER doctor let me know, in no uncertain terms, that had my daughter been vaccinated, she wouldn’t be panting with oxygen to keep her oxygen saturation above 90% and her [heart] rates below 130 [beats per minute],” Hall wrote in a recent Facebook post. “Suddenly, every concern my ill/misinformed mind had about vaccination was replaced with if she had a pulmonary embolism and what major city we would have to travel to.”

She added that, after 20 days in the hospital and isolation at home, her daughter is in recovery — and eager to get her story out.

“She is just a child. I make her decisions, and I have to watch her live with/in the life I choose for her,” Hall wrote. “On July 14th, it didn’t matter who I voted for or what church I attend. It mattered if I had [chosen] to vaccinate her, which I did not. She was left to deal with COVID in a very bad way. … I gave her time and a freedom that wasn’t mine to give.

“Our children, our families, need to be vaccinated,” she added.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.