Vaccination Hesitancy, the Delta Variant, and Hospitalizations: The Troubling Trifecta of 2021

“Prior to the vaccine, I was heartsick because people died and we couldn’t help them. Now, they don’t get the vaccination and we can’t help them.” (Tammy Kellebrew, Arkansas pharmacist)

Despite a slight decrease in COVID-19 related hospitalizations, Arkansas is still in the midst of a severe outbreak, straining hospitals and their medical staff. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that “. . .for the first time since Friday, the number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas hospitals fell to 1,396 — still higher by 25 than its peak during the winter surge in January” while “. . .the number of virus patients who were on ventilators remained at 296.” 

In reality, Arkansas is contenting for the top spot among states with regard to infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Medical Express reports, “Arkansas ranks third in the country for new virus cases per capita, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The state’s cases have been skyrocketing in recent weeks, fueled by the delta variant of the virus and the state’s low vaccination rate.” 

And according to Johns Hopkins Corona Virus Resource Center, Arkansas has reported 15,912 new cases deaths, 149 deaths, 21.95% positive testing rate, just in the past week. The infection outbreak is being fueled by two factors, the spread of the Delta variant, which has been shown to be more transmissible than its predecessor, and a low vaccination rate, especially when compared to other states. 

Because of the enhanced transmissibility of the Delta variant, children seem to be particularly susceptible, putting them at risk for a potentially serious infection. This has presented a host of serious challenges for hospitals that serve children. According to ABC News, “Arkansas Children’s Hospital said 27 children were hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest it has seen since the pandemic began, surpassing the record it set two weeks ago,” and that “twelve of the patients are in intensive care and eight are on ventilators.” 

Dr. Cam Peterson

Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, spoke recently about his concerns regarding the infection rate and hospitalizations, stating: “Almost half of our patients in the ICUs are in the hospital with COVID-19 complications. We’ve got four patients on heart-lung bypass because of COVID-19 complications. And the patients are younger. A year ago, our average COVID-19 patient was over 60. Now it’s 40. About 20% of our patients have been pregnant moms. We’ve had moms who’ve lost their babies because of COVID-19 infections.”

Patterson also indicated his frustration with the glacial pace of vaccinations in Arkansas, warning, “You know, one of the challenges that we have, though, is, you know, this is now an avoidable problem. And it’s difficult to come into work and to deal with these challenges when you know that there was an antidote to this, the vaccine, that people have chosen not to take. And it’s difficult not to become angry.” 

Beyond the patients and their illnesses, there are real consequences for the medical staff at Arkansas hospitals. A recent report indicates that “Burnout and staffing shortages are plaguing Arkansas’ health care system in addition to the new COVID-19 delta variant. Staffing shortages are affecting morale to the point that some employees are walking off on the job in the middle of their shift.” 

And the frontline in the battle against COVID-19 is fought by the footsoldier, the nurses who directly take care of patients on a daily basis. One of those nurses, who goes by the name of Sunny, gave the following cynical appraisal of the situation: “Nurses were really the symbol for this pandemic and all of the hate was centered around us – the hate, the fear, the respect, all of it. And now we’re having people come in and look us in the face and be like, ‘No I didn’t get the vaccine, and now I’m sick.’”

In fact, with a full vaccination rate (both doses) of only 38.25%, Arkansas ranks number 46 out of 51 with the lowest rates according to Becker’s Hospital Review. Of course, much of this is related to the phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy, which according to the World Health Organization, is the “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services.” 

And as irrational as vaccine hesitancy may seem, there are in reality a number of logical factors that contribute to perpetuating this dynamic. Paterson sheds some light on this, saying, ”We’re a poor state, relatively undereducated, very rural. Those are the kinds of people who are vaccine hesitant. And then on top of that, there’s this whole health care misinformation industry that’s really grown up around the vaccine that is so frustrating to deal with. But there are multiple reasons why people are hesitant of the vaccine here. African Americans are less likely to get vaccinated than Caucasians. And that’s due to a long history of mistrust with the health care system, which is understandable.” 

The pressure doctors feel is not abating, either. Dr. Gregory “Scott” Harrington, a physician at Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock, said in a recent Facebook post, “This current surge is the worst mass casualty event I have ever seen in my 30+ year career that includes being a physician in the U.S. Army for many years before entering civilian practice.”

The increasingly dire situation has not escaped health officials at the federal level. As reported by MSN, “ In a letter this week to acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock, the pediatricians’ group urged federal authorities to approve the shots for younger kids as soon as possible: ‘In our view, the rise of the delta variant changes the risk-benefit analysis.’” 

Meanwhile, the battle continues, with hospital bed availability becoming a pressing issue. Dr. Heather Haq, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, states these surges are having a significant impact on her facility and staff, saying, “After many months of zero or few pediatric Covid cases, we are seeing infants, children and teens with Covid pouring back into the hospital, more and more each day. I worry that we will run out of beds and staff.”