Missouri tourist hub no stranger to COVID’s wrath. But many still wary of vaccine

Tessa Weinberg
Missouri Independent
A sign welcomes visitors to Eminence, Missouri, a town of nearly 800 in southern Missouri. Like most of the state, the county has seen a recent rise in COVID-19 cases. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

Nearly everyone in Shannon County has seen what the COVID-19 virus can do to a person.

Last week as the local health center held a vaccination clinic, tourists flocked to the county of 8,000 in Southern Missouri, where residents have borne their fair share of the virus’ wrath.

Armand Spurgin knew one of the first people to have a confirmed positive case in the county. Sherri Vincent has beat back the virus twice, and the fogginess that came with it still lingers.

William O’Donnell heard gasps for air so loud they were audible from outside a man’s home he visited as a volunteer emergency first responder. Cathy Hicks watched a friend she had known all her life spend the last month of his own battling the virus and needing a ventilator. 

It’s a tight-knit community, where locals wave to each other as they drive by and care for each other like family. It also means many of the rising cases the local health department reports are more than just an abstract number.

A month ago the virus had seemed to have moved on. The county was at zero active cases, said Kandra Counts, the administrator for the Shannon County Health Center.

Kandra Counts, the administrator for the Shannon County Health Center in southwestern Missouri, poses outside of the health center building on July 8, 2021. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

But as cases have exploded to the west in Springfield, driven largely by the Delta variant’s spread and low vaccination rates, they’ve also risen in Shannon County where there were 25 active cases as of last week.

“I feel like deja vu,” Counts said, later adding: “It’s like we’re in that movie Groundhog Day right now, and it’s starting over again.”

This time she’s better prepared and has vaccines, a tool she lacked last year when the county’s first case was reported in late May 2020.

But Shannon County has one of the lowest COVID vaccination rates in the state — and ranks the fourth-lowest with a little over 1,600, or about 20.3 percent of county residents, with at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The county’s seven-day positivity rate — the percent of positive cases out of those tested through polymerase chain reaction tests — was at 16.9 percent as of Monday, according to state data. A hotspot map created by the state put its two-week rate at over 20 percent, one of the highest ranges counties are currently experiencing.

For the month of June, the county added 21 new cases. It’s already surpassed that in the first two weeks of July, with the addition of 31 new cases, according to state data as of Tuesday.

It’s just one of the many areas of the state experiencing an upward trend in new cases, and contributing to Missouri seeing one of the largest number of new cases per capita, according to The New York Times’ analysis of states’ data. 

The recent uptick in cases in the area, coupled with news of the variant’s spread in nearby parts of the state and a tourist season in full swing, has spurred some Shannon County residents to get vaccinated.

A sign marks the entrance to the a drive-through COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Shannon County Health Center on Thursday, July 8, 2021. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

At the drive-through vaccination clinic at the health center last Thursday, 46 people received either their initial or booster dose of Moderna’s vaccine — up from the 11 residents who came to the health center’s last clinic on June 24.

“I thought we were pretty much in the clear,” said Hicks, a lifelong Eminence resident vaccinated at last week’s clinic. “It is very much a tourist town. There’s people from all over different states coming here… I just thought for my own safety and the safety of my family, I probably should do that.”

But for others, it hasn’t been enough. 

While Ashley Fisher, an office support staff assistant at the health center, has been helping administer vaccines to residents, she doesn’t want to get a shot herself until the vaccines are fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Even Counts’ own parents, who are in their 80s, have said they need more time.

“She said, ‘It’s too new. I don’t trust it,’” Counts recounted her mother saying. “Okay, that’s fine. That’s your decision. And so that’s one of the reasons I went ahead and got vaccinated because I thought, I’ve got to protect them.”

Ozarks Healthcare, which has a primary care clinic in nearby Winona, even offered more discreet options for residents worried about facing blowback for getting a shot.

“If you are afraid of walking into a public area where you might be seen getting your vaccine, we will work to accommodate even more of a private setting for you to receive your vaccine,” Ozarks Healthcare posted on its Facebook page last week.

Others in town are more ambivalent, with the virus becoming an accepted part of life that they don’t feel is going away any time soon.

“I have not had the vaccine, and it’s not because I’m anti vaccine… Everybody in my family has, I just haven’t got to it,” said Spurgin, the owner of Windy’s Canoe Rentals. He later added: “There’s no dispute. It was real. People died. That’s how it is. We have to learn how to live with it.”

What spurred some

A line of cars, and a four-wheeler, wait at a drive-through COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Shannon County Health Center on Thursday, July 8, 2021. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

On a muggy Thursday morning in Eminence with the sun beating down, the first cars were already lined along a trail of orange traffic cones shortly after 8:30 a.m.

They were there to receive a COVID-19 vaccine dose. Under a drive-through garage the Shannon County Health Center built with CARES Act funding, a team of five clinic staff had an efficient system, honed through vaccinating over 2,000 people over the last six months.

One of the first people in line was Molly Derryberry, a pharmacist in Winona. Derryberry had already contracted the virus in January and wanted to ensure others without any protection had a chance to get a shot first.

“I’m sure it wasn’t the Delta variant,” Derryberry said of when she was sick. “And so I definitely don’t want to get it again, because I was pretty sick with it.”

Vincent battled COVID twice and her family caught it, too. Yet she initially was not interested in taking the vaccine.

Sherri Vincent waits in her car after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine dose at the Shannon County Health Center on Thursday, July 8, 2021. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

“I honestly was against the vaccine,” Vincent said. “I’m not for putting something into my body that I don’t know a whole lot about.”

It wasn’t until after lots of research, a close eye on reports about the vaccines’ effects and discussions with her family that they decided it was the right decision.

For others, their jobs are what brought them out to get a dose.

Austin Byerly hadn’t planned on getting the vaccine originally, and hadn’t been worried by the increasing cases. But then his employer, freight boat operator Canal Barge, said that getting vaccinated would assist employees in moving up in the workplace. He and many of his coworkers made appointments to get a shot.

For Hicks, her choice came down to wanting to protect her family, some who have chosen not to get vaccinated. Another factor that helped: hearing from Dr. Jon Roberts.

“He suggested it,” Hicks said, “and I thought, ‘Well, if Dr. Jon says that we should get it, we probably should.’”

After working for years at the Mercy St. Francis Hospital, Roberts helped form the Good Samaritan Care Clinic in 2004. Located in Mountain View, a little over 30 miles to the southwest of Eminence, the clinic provides free healthcare services.

He recently sat for an interview with the Shannon County Health Center to answer questions about how well vaccines work against the Delta variant. A snippet posted to the health center’s Facebook page was shared over 130 times.

Standing in a white lab coat Thursday, he greeted those that had come for a dose, and said he could relate to residents too hesitant to do so.

Roberts has been in practice for 44 years. The first 15 of them he didn’t take a flu vaccine, he said.

It wasn’t until he read a medical journal that said physicians who don’t take a flu vaccine are putting both their patients and families at risk. Even if he were to get a mild case, if he showed up to work he could still be exposing others.

From then on, he’s gotten a flu shot every year.

“I’ve not missed one,” he said.

Keeping watch of those who come to get vaccinated is O’Donnell. He’s been doing so since February, along with his Subaru, the unofficial ambulance of Shannon County.

William O’Donnell, a volunteer first responder, stands next to his Subaru, the unofficial ambulance of Shannon County. O’Donnell monitored patients at a vaccine clinic on Thursday, July 8, 2021, to ensure they didn’t experience any adverse side effects. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

His job as a volunteer first responder has given him an up-close look at the havoc the virus can wreak.

“I get to see them die sometimes,” O’Donnell said. “If people were seeing that, if there were 18 bodies lined up on the highway, people would be shocked into action.”

Waiting to lose a loved one is too late, he said. He’s frustrated at state leaders who he wants to see take stronger action.

“A leader doesn’t say, ‘Follow me if you want to, we’ll get around to it, maybe,’ O’Donnell said. “A leader says, ‘We’re going this way. Come on.’ And that’s not what’s happening.”

‘Ready for it to be gone’

Water churns through the Alley Spring and Mill in Shannon County, Missouri, on July 8, 2021. The area’s natural beauty is what compels many residents to call it home their entire lives, and also brings thousands of tourists each year. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

Shannon County’s natural beauty is what compels many residents to call it home their entire lives. With attractions like the Jacks Fork River and Alley Spring and Mill, it’s also what draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each summer.

It’s the second-largest county by area in the state. Swaths of public land, like the Ozark National Scenic Riverways controlled by the U.S. National Park Service, are a vital economic boon to an area that ranks in the bottom quarter of the state based on per capita income. 

But they also carry with it a deep-rooted anti-government sentiment for many residents.

Last year, before the virus had reached Shannon County, local officials made a tough call in an attempt to keep it out. In April 2020, the county issued a local ordinance intended to keep non-residents away just as the tourist season would have been getting underway. 

“At the time, we thought that it might work. So we went ahead and tried it,” Counts said, later adding: “And of course it did come in. You can’t stop a virus. It’s going to spread.”

Spurgin remembers it well. He had purchased Windy’s Canoe Rental on March 17, 2020. About a month later it was temporarily shut down.

“So I was sitting there going, ‘Oh, this could have been a mistake,’” Spurgin recounted.

But instead, business boomed. After the county’s order expired in early May, local business owners said they had the most business in years. Spurgin estimates visitorship was up around 45 percent.

“Last year was a bumper year. Huge,” said Shane Van Steenis, the longtime owner of Harvey’s Alley Spring Canoe Rental.

Rather than wiping out Eminence, a town of nearly 800, the pandemic put it on the map, with tourists flocking for its outdoor amenities.

In 2020, there were 1,316,795 visitors to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways — a recent high since the 1.4 million that visited in 2012, according to National Park Service figures. Through May, there were 247,195 visitors so far this year — nearly 3,400 more than the same period last year.

“I’m just here to provide for my family,” said Cole Younger, who owns the Dairy Shack, a popular tourist destination. “And so, for me, I want people to get out. I want people to come. I want people to be safe. But I also don’t believe in living in a bubble either.”

Customers order ice cream and burgers at the Dairy Shack in Eminence, Missouri on Thursday, July 8, 2021. Last summer business was booming amid the pandemic. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

On a day trip to kayak, Carrie Walker from Cape Girardeau said she contracted the virus in November and still has antibodies showing up when she donates blood every eight weeks. She feels she’s already gone through the worst of it, and has chosen to rely on her natural immunity for now.

“I’m going to wait,” Walker said, “because it didn’t kill me.”

It’s a wave of tourists that Summer Crider, the director of nursing for the county health center, thinks is contributing to the current rise in cases.

“We saw a spike about two weeks after Memorial weekend, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Crider said.

But she also knows tourism is a lifeblood to the community that relies on seasonal business, and hopes residents will do what they can to protect themselves. If residents have questions about the vaccine, Crider emails them fact sheets on its side effects and ingredients ahead of time so they don’t not feel pressured the day they come for a shot. 

Sometimes, they simply want to know if she herself has taken one.

“Yep, I sure did,” said Crider, who felt it was important to help protect the patients she cares for. “But I did a lot of praying about it, a lot of research myself before and that’s what I felt was best for me.”

Crider eyes the map of new cases in Missouri, seeing the wave make its way toward them. Her fear is that the county will see a repeat of last fall, when cases reached a peak of around 60 active at a time, and hospitals were so bombarded that those that would typically be admitted were being sent home instead.

Shannon County Health Center staff stand in the drive-through garage the health center built to host vaccination events. Over the last six months, they’ve vaccinated over 2,000 people. Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

Counts believes that if they keep fighting, they’ll eventually win the war. Health center staff have brought vaccines to residents who are homebound or couldn’t make it to the clinic amid a busy workday. However they can give them, they’re giving them, she said, and will continue to do so.

For many who have endured the near year-and-half of the virus’ grip, their hopes were the same.

“I pray. I pray, and I pray, and I pray — just ready for it to be gone,” Vincent said. “But I don’t know that it will be anytime soon.”