Working for a Community Health Center, one needs a special mindset. You're not out punching timecards or obsessing over profit margins. You care about the people in your community. You care about their health. You do everything you can to treat, but more importantly, you listen. You help patients help themselves.
Most of the time, patients listen. They may not like what you say, but they generally appreciate their medical providers' opinions. They believe Community Health Centers have their best interest at heart.
But it's different with covid-19. We respectfully talk about the good results from vaccines. We work constantly to counter misinformation. But it's hard. People are too willing to believe so many conspiracy theories.
Now, we've reached a tipping point. Covid is exploding across Arkansas. We've got to do more.
I strongly support Gov. Asa Hutchinson's call to amend Act 1002, the state law banning local mask mandates. Our local school leaders deserve the option. Our children deserve the protection. Covid isn't a disease just affecting the old and sick. This new Delta variant changed the ballgame. Kids are not only contracting covid but ending up in the Intensive Care Unit. The situation will only get worse when school starts. Kids will spread it to adults.
The current dynamic amazes me. In the 24 years I've led a Community Health Center, I've never seen anything like this.
We have a deadly worldwide pandemic on our hands and a wonderful miracle of science: a vaccine developed by medical professionals to keep everyone safe. But too many people just refuse to accept the cure.
In some respects, I've thrown up my hands. Some days, I must admit I feel like giving up. As health-care providers, we're irritated. But we'll keep trying.
I hate it's come to this, that we're again talking about students wearing masks in school. I don't like wearing a mask any more than anyone else does. Didn't we do this already? Weren't we supposed to be clear of covid after the vaccine arrived?
But when you stop and think, it makes perfect sense.
Let's consider the simple truth that if the population just got their vaccines we wouldn't be in this predicament. Vaccine rates are too low. Among the counties 1st Choice Healthcare serves (Clay, Greene, Randolph, Lawrence, Sharp, and Fulton), the percentage of people fully immunized is highest in Clay County at 32 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. The remaining five counties have less than 30 percent of their people fully vaccinated. That's just too few people getting their shots.
Who's ending up in the hospital? The unvaccinated. They make up nearly all the covid cases (96 percent), hospitalizations (95 percent), and deaths (97 percent) since Jan. 1, 2021, according to figures released by the governor.
Still, it's understandable why some people would refuse a vaccine. There are so many mixed messages from Washington and from Little Rock. The changes are constant. The CDC said people with a vaccine didn't need to wear a mask. Now, they are saying the opposite. The state had a mask mandate, then it didn't. Who do you listen to?
But let's keep our eyes on the driving factor in this crisis. I agree with Governor Hutchinson. If we all do our part and get the vaccine, this mask stuff goes away.
I worry so much about my community. I love northeast Arkansas. But I hate covid. I'm tired of it. My staff is tired of it. Community Health Centers across Arkansas are fed up with covid. But we all must guard against virus fatigue.
Maybe that sounds like preaching, but it's true.
Our staff has called all our patients to ask them if they want the vaccine. We don't tell them what to do. It's their choice. We just share the facts, that covid is a killer, and that they are at risk of getting extremely sick and possibly dying if they refuse to get a vaccine. Not only that, but they are putting their family, loved ones, friends, neighbors and co-workers at risk. Most who haven't gotten a vaccine tell us they won't get one. They just don't believe in it. Many have a strong distrust of the media and government and disbelief that covid is real. They frequently say the vaccine is too new, without enough testing. They worry about side effects.
We held plenty of community vaccine clinics earlier this year. After a while, people just stopped coming, so we decided to use our resources elsewhere. It was extremely frustrating.
But as health-care leaders in the state, we can't give up. And, we haven't given up. We're planning more vaccine clinics with the first day of school around the corner. We remind people during their visits that they can receive a vaccine conveniently while at the clinic. If someone wants a vaccine, we offer it at any of our six clinics.
All 12 Community Health Center organizations in Arkansas, with more than 160 sites around the state, offer the vaccine. Please come see us. Ask us about the vaccine. Let's remember that all of Arkansas is in this together.
Let's stand strong against covid, as a community.
Brigitte McDonald is chief executive officer of 1st Choice Healthcare, and chair of the Community Health Centers of Arkansas Board of Directors.