KC health officials work to increase COVID vaccination rates as Delta variant spreads

By: - August 2, 2021 11:44 am
COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic at University Hospital.

A COVID-19 vaccine clinic at University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia (Photo by Justin Kelley/MU Health Care)

This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon.

Health care leaders in Kansas City are working to get more people vaccinated to slow the recent surge of cases in the metro area as the COVID-19 Delta variant spreads.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced that masks will again be required in public spaces starting Aug. 2. Cases in Kansas City have tripled in the last 30 days, according to the city’s Health Department.

That’s why the Health Department is taking a more targeted approach to vaccine rollout, and nonprofit organizations like the Mattie Rhodes Center are working to get vaccines to the Kansas City community.

“For people that have been on the fence and wondering, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ — now is really the time to act,” said Frank Thompson, deputy director of the Kansas City Health Department. “There is still a very small window for people to try and get fully vaccinated before the Delta variant really kind of kicks into high gear into our region.”

Disparities in KC’s vaccination rate 

When the vaccine first became available in January, the Mattie Rhodes Center focused on facilitating appointments by promoting availability and going with people to their appointments — especially people who primarily speak Spanish, because many of Mattie Rhodes’ staff members are bilingual.

“Even in the early days of vaccinations, it was very, very obvious in the national statistics and in the media that in those communities where you would find people of color, there was a disparity,” said John Fierro, president and CEO of Mattie Rhodes. “I felt that we had a responsibility to advocate, to make that accessible in the community, and we had a responsibility to provide outreach and education.”

Mattie Rhodes hosted its first on-site vaccine event in May and has hosted around 10 events since then, Fierro said. The organization has facilitated around 450 vaccinations in total.

“You can feel that they are kind of nervous or doubtful of the vaccine, but when they encounter someone that speaks their own language and answers any questions, or translates what the nurses are saying, they get a little bit less nervous and a little bit more confident in the decision they’re making,” said Valeria León, an intern with Mattie Rhodes who has helped organize vaccine clinics.

In addition to providing vaccines, Mattie Rhodes has focused on addressing food insecurity and rental assistance throughout the pandemic. At clinics, people can take home boxes of food or eat a hot lunch before they leave.

“We are here to be advocates for the Hispanic community, and it was our responsibility to ensure that those resources made it here into the neighborhood,” Fierro said.

Overall, 39% of Kansas Citians — over 193,000 people — were fully vaccinated as of July 27. About 45% had received their first dose.

Across the city, the vaccination rate varies depending on the age range being considered. The rate for people 65 years or older is significantly higher than that for the total population of people over 18. In some ZIP codes, the vaccination rate for people over 65 is 99%, while for people over 18, the rate is closer to 50%.

In the 64147 ZIP code, in south Kansas City, 99% of people 65 and older are vaccinated, while 15% of all adults have completed their vaccination.

There are many reasons some areas of the city are less vaccinated than others, Thompson said. Some people are against getting vaccinated because of misinformation, or because they are skeptical of how quickly the vaccines received emergency use authorization.

“You have some that have just adopted a view of, ‘I’ve made it this long, I’m just gonna keep pressing my luck,’” Thompson said.

The Health Department is working on messaging that combats misinformation and encourages people to get vaccinated.

“Vaccines are safe. This vaccine, in particular, is incredibly safe,” said Andrew Schlachter, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. “There are no circumstances in which I would rather take my odds with coronavirus than with any of the vaccines that are available.”

Shifting vaccine rollout strategies 

The Delta variant is a more sinister version of the coronavirus in that it’s more contagious and can lead to more severe infections, Schlachter said.

Older people and people with medical conditions that put them at a higher risk for COVID-19 were more heavily affected by the original virus last year. But now, they’re more likely to be vaccinated. Younger, healthier people are dealing with more severe cases as the Delta variant spreads, Schlachter said.

The Health Department shifted its vaccination strategy away from the large sites used in the spring to more targeted clinics in locations where people, especially those ages 18 to 35, would already be — like the City Market, where it hosted a vaccine event on June 26.

These pop-up clinics, like the ones hosted by Mattie Rhodes, can vaccinate anywhere from a dozen people to over 50, Thompson said.

“At this point, it’s about just making it as convenient as possible,” Thompson said.

In addition to age ranges, the Health Department looks at geography and race, among other factors, when setting up targeted vaccine events.

This strategy can help vaccinate people who may be on the fence about getting the shot. When the vaccine is presented to them directly, they may decide to go ahead and get it, Thompson said.

The number of people vaccinated every day in Kansas City has gone down considerably compared to the spring, Thompson said.

Kansas City’s COVID-19 positivity rate was 29.5% as of July 23, according to the Health Department. In June, the rate was around 10%. The city’s positivity rate has not been this high since January, when it peaked at 31.5%.

“We’re seeing numbers that are far too high for what they ever should be at this point in the pandemic,” Schlachter said.

Nearly all of the people recently hospitalized because of COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Thompson said. While the vaccines can’t guarantee that a person won’t contract the virus, Schlachter said he hasn’t personally seen anyone who’s fully vaccinated require intensive care because of COVID-19.

“We are not seeing people who die of coronavirus if they’ve had their vaccine,” Schlachter said. “You may get sick, you may feel horrible — I don’t mean to belittle that — but you are unlikely to die, and you’re unlikely to meet my team and I in the COVID ICU.”

The vaccines are also effective against the Delta variant, which is now the dominant strain in the region, Thompson said.

“This Delta variant is a consequence of the failure of our country and our community to do the appropriate vaccination,” ​​Schlachter said.

Preparing to go back to school

Masks will be required in indoor public spaces in Kansas City, regardless of vaccination status, starting Aug. 2, Lucas said Wednesday. Kansas City’s original mask mandate was lifted in May.

The reinstated mask mandate comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that people who are vaccinated need to wear masks inside in some cases, reversing guidance from May that said people who are vaccinated do not need to wear masks indoors.

The Health Department is focusing on vaccinating people under 18 before the new school year begins. While no vaccine has been approved for those under the age of 12, children ages 12 to 17 can receive the Pfizer vaccine.

The Health Department held a back-to-school vaccination event July 17 to vaccinate kids against COVID-19 if they are eligible and administer vaccines that are required for all children to go to school.

Thompson said the Health Department is prepared to offer the vaccine to younger kids, should approval come for those ages 5 and up in August or September.

The most important ways to stay protected from COVID-19 are getting vaccinated, continuing to wear a mask and practicing social distancing, Thompson said.

“I’ve seen a lot of people who will strongly have opinions about their vaccine status or masks, but I have not seen a single patient who is on death’s door with coronavirus who is not asking me to do anything and everything that I can, including that vaccine that they had previously refused,” Schlachter said.

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Sophia Belshe
Sophia Belshe

Sophia Belshe is a reporting intern for The Kansas City Beacon. She is from Overland Park, Kansas, and a rising senior at the University of Kansas.

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