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Rural hospital doctor describes COVID-19 conditions a year later

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's been just about a year since COVID vaccines started going into Americans' arms. Despite hundreds of millions of shots, cases are skyrocketing because of the new omicron variant. We'll hear from the head of the National Institutes of Health in a few minutes. But first, we return to Scotland County in northeastern Missouri.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHANE WILSON: They are tired of hearing wear your mask, wash your hands, social distance. It's not the fact that they're not getting the message. It's the fact that they're tired of hearing it. And I get it.

DETROW: That's Dr. Shane Wilson talking to WEEKEND EDITION a year ago when Scotland County had a positivity rate of 30% - 1 of every 3 people - and vaccines were just days away from arriving. A year later, just 27% of the county's eligible population is fully vaccinated. Dr. Wilson says he has been on the front line of a health care crisis and on the fault line of pandemic politics.

WILSON: There is only one enemy here, and the enemy is a virus. And the one way we're going to stop it, just like we did polio, just like we did smallpox, it was through vaccination. If you get this thing, you know, it has that many more chances to replicate, which means more mutations, which means we're facing a little bit different enemy each time that acts a little bit different and reacts in each body different, which contributes to ongoing disease.

DETROW: Let's just talk about what things are like around you. When you go to the grocery store, when you go to a restaurant, if you get to a bar anymore, is anyone doing anything that reflects the fact that there's still a pandemic that's probably about to get worse?

WILSON: Generally speaking, in our region, I would say no. The people who are caught up with wanting protection, want to protect themselves, are almost extremists. And the people who don't want to hear about it and don't want to agree with vaccinations, they get angry about it because they don't know who to believe because there's mixed messages everywhere. People are beyond exhausted.

DETROW: So what's the way out of this, in your mind? Because, you know, when we talk about misinformation and polarization, often the solution that's suggested is just have face-to-face conversations, get away from that screen. But you're having most face-to-face conversations.

WILSON: Yeah. I literally have them every day. I see these patients in the hospital that are unvaccinated, and I sit down and I talk with them, you know. And the reality of it was, is the majority of people that I hear, they say, well, I never thought it was going to affect me, and I didn't think it was going to be this bad. Unfortunately, the only time I have seen people who are, you know, adamantly against vaccinations turn is when they're sick, when they're hospitalized with it, when they lose a loved one. It's sad, you know. I'm not a proponent to push or require or mandate anything. Don't get me wrong. But I also believe that in order for a person to make a fair, wise, informed decision about something that they put in their body, good science needs to be trusted again, and it's simply not being trusted.

DETROW: From your perspective, do you think the mandates backfired a little bit in taking people in?

WILSON: Absolutely. I mean, I literally had a patient tell me this last week who was unvaccinated, they said, you know what? If they just wouldn't have told me that I had to get it and just told us that it was a good idea and why we should get it, that we needed to protect our family and friends, he said I would have got it. He said, but it was the fact that somebody was telling me I had to do it. So people around here - and not just around here - the last thing they want to be told is by some bureaucrat sitting in an office somewhere that has no understanding of our livelihood and how we live telling us how we need to live and what we need to do with our bodies.

DETROW: Before you were talking about how this needs to be treated the same way that collectively we dealt with things like polio, smallpox. A lot of those vaccines were mandated. The mandates kind of made them widespread, and that's why these aren't problems anymore. How do you get that public health response you're calling for when you think things like mandates are the wrong way to go?

WILSON: Well, I think the important thing is to let people know that it's about protecting everyone. It has nothing to do with the left, the right. I wish they would trust the health care providers and utilize that information to get to them to help them understand why vaccination programs are so important.

DETROW: Is your hospital doing anything to prepare for this next wave that seems likely? You know, we're looking at just staggering numbers in Europe, increasing numbers, you know, throughout the U.S. over the last few days.

WILSON: We are incredibly short staffed, which limits our availability locally to take care of our folks as best we can. Our tertiary centers in our region and even throughout the state, it's my understanding that they are maxed out. They have literally hours and hours and hours of ER wait time. You know, we're licensed for 25 beds. Can I have 25 patients in the hospital right now? Absolutely not. We don't have enough nurses that we could safely take care of that many patients. It's just not possible. But, yeah, it looks like a storm coming. I just, you know, hope we can handle it.

DETROW: Dr. Shane Wilson with Scotland County Hospital in Missouri, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to talk to us.

WILSON: Thank you, Scott. I appreciate your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.