POTOSI, Mo. — At home, Matty Minson was surrounded by woods on the outskirts of this small town. He loved to hunt and fish. During the week, for about 20 years, he made the 65-mile drive north to work construction around St. Louis.
He was proud of building sewer and commercial-grade water systems. Passing by a Chesterfield outlet mall and other places with friends and family, he’d point out his handiwork.
Last fall, COVID-19 ground his life to a halt. First, it was a cough. The initial test was negative, but he kept feeling poorly. He eventually went to Washington County Memorial Hospital and was admitted for a few days. From there, he was sent north, to Missouri Baptist Medical Center, near the infrastructure projects he helped build.
Minson fought COVID-19 in earnest for about two months. He was on a ventilator from Thanksgiving Day until he died Jan. 6. He was 42. His death shook Potosi, population 2,662. He was hearty, hardworking and relatively young.
As soon as she could, his daughter, Kayelee Bodimer, got vaccinated.
“I definitely recognize it’s everybody’s choice,” she said. “Frankly, for my family and I, if it could prevent one person from going through what we had to experience, it wasn’t a second thought for us.… If you could do one little thing to prevent it, why not?”
As the coronavirus has picked up pace in recent weeks, she is among only 23% of Washington County residents to be fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That’s among the lowest county vaccination rates in Missouri, where just 41% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Public health experts say if the United States is going to beat the virus, vaccination rates will need to improve in places like Washington County. Overcoming vaccination hesitancy here is going to be difficult, based on interviews with residents and officials. Reasons ran the gamut.
Despite top officials, including conservative Republicans Gov. Mike Parson, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, now urging constituents to get vaccinated, distrust in government is widespread. The message has changed too many times. Too many lies, people say, too many unknowns.
Many residents point out that the COVID-19 vaccines are relatively new and have yet to be fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They say the vaccine isn’t a guaranteed protection. The odds of dying from COVID-19 are very low. And those that do die had preexisting conditions.
Many don’t take the virus seriously, reporting shows. Many already had it. And, they say, despite mainstream media beating the death drum of worst-case scenarios ad nauseam, they survive, sometimes hardly knowing they have it.
There have been 53 COVID-19 deaths in Washington County since the start of the pandemic, according to state data. A refrigerated trailer and stacks of body bags haven’t been needed, as some authorities cautioned early on, said Doug Short, a county commissioner.
“I don’t think COVID scares people anymore,” said Short, 53, taking a break from hauling hay.
Both he and his father had COVID-19. With the help of prescribed steroids and antibiotics, Short said he still worked on the farm every day. He only had mild congestion at night.
“I encourage people to get vaccinated, especially elderly people,” Short said.
He said his 83-year-old father was vaccinated at the Washington County Health Department Wednesday. Short planned to ride out any antibodies still in his system and more testing of the vaccine.
“I probably should get the shot,” he said. “My gut tells me to hold off a little bit longer, and that’s what I am going to do.”
For some, faith is about the only undeniable truth. Nobody has statistics on all the people God has saved, but Jack Fambrough says he accounts for one.
“I am living proof,” the Pentecostal preacher said of surviving COVID-19.
He and his wife haven’t been vaccinated. Their 19-year-old daughter, who survived five open heart surgeries in St. Louis, is soon headed to James River College, a Christian school near Springfield, Missouri.
“She has to make her own decision because she’s of age,” said Fambrough, 65, who worked a long time at Joyce Meyer Ministries.
On Wednesday afternoon, he sweated through his shirt in an asphalt parking lot in Potosi, the county seat, as he led a team of people giving out free meals. It was part of a federal program helping families during the pandemic. Traffic was steady. They ran out of gallons of milk and two weeks’ worth of breakfasts and lunches for 384 children in an hour and a half.
“A lot of hurting people out here,” said Fambrough.
While public officials yearn for herd immunity, when most of the population is vaccinated and immune to the new coronavirus and its variants, Fambrough and others are skeptical of loving thy neighbor that way.
“Just because the politicians and the news says one thing, there’s so many lies that have been carried out,” he said. “It’s to the point you don’t know who you can believe and who you can trust.”
Asked about leaders like Parson, Blunt and Hawley encouraging vaccinations, he said: “How many pandemics have they been through? None. They can give a recommendation, they can’t give me proof.”
His proof was in Proverbs, Chapter 3:
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart …”
‘Dead or alive’
Compared to the food giveaway, traffic at the Washington County Health Department is slow. These days, about 50 to 60 COVID-19 vaccines are being administered there a week.
“I, myself, believe in the vaccine 100%,” said Shawnee Douglass, the director. “I also have respect for people in the community who choose not to take the vaccine. The great thing that makes us America is that we have a choice. If only this issue hadn’t become so politicized, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
Douglas, 54, who grew up in the community, spoke from her office. Red, white and blue lights draped from the ceiling. Other decorations left from the Fourth of July holiday were mixed in with mementos of her Southern Baptist faith.
“I am a Republican,” she said. “They dropped the ball. I don’t think they were ahead of it like they should have been.”
Douglas said some people have even been scared off because they think the government is trying to implant “chips” to track them. The health department has sought help from area doctors to refer the vaccine, but there is still a wide variety of people who resist it. She said one doctor is among those who champion the liberty of choice.
“It comes down to our human nature,” Douglas said. “People just don’t want to be told what to do.”
She said they are promoting the vaccine through social and local media and at public events. On Wednesday, the large sign in front of the health department didn’t mention the vaccine was free and available, Monday through Friday at 520 Purcell Drive. Another sign out front by the road advertised a farmer’s market that’s meeting every Wednesday in a nearby pavilion.
Mark Stevens, 46, was over there, selling sweetcorn, watermelons, green beans and tomatoes out of the bed of his pickup truck. He wouldn’t walk across the parking lot to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“You’d have to drag me dead or alive,” said Stevens, who’s 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighs 340 pounds and throws around a lot of other numbers he’s gleaned from Newsmax, a conservative cable network and website. Stevens said he watches less of Fox News since it started leaning too far left.
“Why trust your life in the hands of an administration that lies about everything,” he said as one of many reasons why he’s not getting vaccinated.
Exhibit A, he said, was the presidential election results, followed by lots of hypocrisy. “(President Biden) supports abortion…. Your body, your choice. But he wants to make us get the vaccine?”
Debbie Boyer, one of his customers, said she got vaccinated after her sister-in-law died from COVID-19. Now, she’s having second thoughts. She’s upset with the priorities of the federal government championing vaccination while ignoring other hot button issues.
“They are so afraid of COVID, yet the border is open,” she said. “Are they vaccinating those people? No. They are letting them go anywhere they want. It’s not that I am this dead set Trumper. It’s that this is so blatantly in your face.”
“We’ve got half of America that agrees with us,” Stevens said.
‘How do they know?’
Some people don’t believe COVID-19 exists even though their relatives have been diagnosed with it, said Donna Valle, 46, who manages a drive-in movie theater in Old Mines.
“I think (President Donald) Trump brainwashed them all,” she said with a smile.
Including her mother, who just spent five days in Washington County Memorial Hospital, the 25-bed facility in Potosi. Valle, who has an autoimmune disorder, has been vaccinated. Her mother won’t be.
“She thinks now that she’s had COVID that she’s built up an immunity and can’t get it again because she’s convinced she had the delta variant,” Valle said. “You can’t change her mind. I don’t know what it would take. I have tried to talk to her.”
COVID-19 also recently hit Tiffany Barton’s family. Her parents and 20-year-old son had it. When she, too, came down with the coronavirus, it was the first time she’d been sick in four years.
“I didn’t get it that bad,” said Barton, 40, a cook at a restaurant in Caledonia, who also substitute teaches for children with special needs. “I am a mom who runs the house and has a job.”
Her 43-year-old husband Jimmy, a disabled trucker, wasn’t as lucky. Last weekend, she took him to Mercy Hospital in Festus. He was treated for COVID-19 and released.
Jimmy didn’t maintain good oxygen levels, though. At one point Wednesday evening, Tiffany and Jimmy were the only two people waiting in the emergency room at Washington County Memorial Hospital. After Jimmy went in to be treated, Tiffany visited outside about their situation.
She said there’s not enough good data about vaccines, too many media scare tactics and a big government agenda that’s been unreliable.
“If the CDC is constantly changing their guidelines, then how do they know what to give for it?” she said.
No, she won’t be getting the vaccine. Nor will her husband.
“He’s made that very clear,” she said.
Jimmy ended up admitted to the local hospital. By Friday, he’d been transferred to St. Louis.