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COVID-19 cases drop in rural Missouri, but vaccinations are still weeks away

As the pandemic continues spiraling out of control in much of the U.S., the number of infections have declined in recent weeks in Scotland County, Missouri. But despite that good news, medical professionals there may not receive any doses of the coronavirus vaccine until the end of January, and they fear their community could soon have another surge. Special correspondent James Fox reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, as the pandemic continues to spiral out of control, we look at one place where the number of infections have declined in recent weeks, Scotland County, Missouri.

    But with that good news comes the bad. Health officials there are learning that they may not receive any doses of the vaccine until the end of January. And they fear their community might have another surge before then.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent James Fox has that story.

  • James Fox:

    Throughout much of the pandemic, Scotland County, Missouri was the type of place that thought it was immune from the coronavirus. With miles and miles of road separating most households, there seemed little point in covering your face or sparing a trip into town, or, at least, that is what farmers like Glen Cowell believed.

  • Glen Cowell:

    I didn't pay much attention to it. I really didn't. I didn't wear a mask. At 68, I'm still reasonably healthy. I don't take any daily pills or anything like that. I don't have diabetes or anything like that.

    So I never thought too much about it. And I thought, too, well, if I get it, I will be sick for a couple days. Well, I made two trips to the hospital in an ambulance, was there for over a week, and I was as sick as I have ever been in my life.

  • James Fox:

    Glen Cowell was hospitalized with COVID-19 four weeks ago. At 68, he is back to tending his 500-acre cattle farm with an oxygen tank to aid his battered lungs.

    This is a part of the country where it takes an hour to reach just about anything. Most people here have to drive across multiple counties simply to pick up a prescription. But Glen is one of the lucky few. He lives 15 minutes from the only hospital in the area.

  • Glen Cowell:

    We're 50 miles from everything. I mean, the nearest stoplight is 50 miles away. The nearest Walmart is 50 miles away.

    The hospitals are further away. I mean, there's one in Keokuk, one in Quincy, one in Hannibal. But, as sick as I was, and to be able to get me 15 minutes to a hospital made a difference. It really did. And that's — and people need to know that it's for real. I mean, they really do.

  • Shane Wilson:

    There's nobody more than me that wants this to be back to normal, but the reality of it is, is, we're not there.

    We're still seeing a lot of community spread. I honestly can't think of anybody I have had in this hospital that was from this area that I either didn't know or know their family members.

  • James Fox:

    Scotland County Hospital in Memphis, Missouri, has been over-run with COVID-19 since October. But unlike many other parts of the country, where cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are soaring, the hospital in this county is beginning to open up beds, rather than fill them.

    With only six beds reserved for coronavirus patients, Dr. Shane Wilson knows the tide could reverse at any moment.

  • Shane Wilson:

    Well, you know, we did that CAT scan of your brain this morning. It looks fine. Doesn't look like you had a stroke or anything. That's what I was a little bit concerned about because…

  • James Fox:

    The hospital is still tending to patients struggling with the aftereffects of the virus.

    At 99, Barbara Roberts is one of many patients who have beaten the odds thus far.

  • Shane Wilson:

    How do you feel sitting up?

  • Woman:

    Kind of lightheaded.

  • Shane Wilson:


  • James Fox:

    Others have been less lucky, according to nurse Olivia Steele.

  • Olivia Steele:

    It's here. It's real. It affects everyone differently. Obviously, we have seen that. Some are asymptomatic. Some have G.I. issues.

    And some are respiratory patients and have never had any respiratory issues in the past, and they die from it. That's — that was the big eye-opener for all of us here, when we started having deaths of patients that have had no respiratory issues.

  • James Fox:

    Like other rural hospitals, Scotland County offers therapeutic drugs to prevent mild cases of the coronavirus from breaking down into bad ones.

    Masks and social distancing are rarely enforced in this county, so the staff here is hoping these treatments will keep any future surges at bay.

  • Elizabeth Guffey:

    I do think we have gotten better at getting the word out about social distancing and wearing the masks when you're in public.

    There's still a fair number of people who don't believe the masks have any benefit.

  • James Fox:

    It is true that many rural communities have been resistant to health guidelines which have become the norm in most major cities.

    But while those cities were getting pummeled in the spring, rural communities, including Scotland County, were barely seeing any viral spread. That was until October, when this county's numbers skyrocketed to emergency levels, and then abruptly fell off nearly as quickly.

  • Elizabeth Guffey:

    We were very lucky in this community that things did not hit until late in the season. Well, then, when people did start getting sick, people were so tired of all the restrictions for so long, that I think there was a certain amount of, we're done with this, you know? If we get it, we get it.

  • Troy Alexander:

    You travel around within a two-or-three-hour radius of this, and you tell people you're from Memphis, Missouri, and they say, oh, well, that's where Keith's Cafe is, where all the coffee cups are. And I say, yes, that's right.

  • James Fox:

    Once famous for the hundreds of coffee mugs which hung from its ceiling, Keith's Cafe is just one example of a local business that has muscled its way through the pandemic.

    After closing their kitchen earlier in the year, Troy Alexander and his family decided it would be best for both themselves and the local economy if they were open. Their approach stands in stark contrast to what many restaurants have done in larger cities.

  • Troy Alexander:

    Your number one staple is, you got to take care of the people right here among you. That's just the compromise that we have — we decided to make.

    And I think, in the long run, it'll hold true. And then, once this is over with, business will get back to normal, if not better.

  • James Fox:

    And it is not just the restaurants in this county that are pushing on through the pandemic. School is still in session four days a week, as are sports.

  • Ryan Bergeson:

    We wanted to try to maximize as many educational and then extracurricular opportunities as we possibly could, while meeting the guidelines.

    And so it's early in the season. We're almost at winter break. So far, it's gone pretty well, but I'm sure there will be hiccups. And we have already had several scheduling changes. So, just like anything this school year, we're going to have to be flexible, and hopefully everyone will contribute the way they see fit, and we will be able to continue on through the remainder of this season.

  • James Fox:

    Flexibility is key, as it will be weeks and more likely months before enough vaccines can be distributed to slow the spread of the virus.

    According to Missouri's Department of Health and Senior Services, rural hospitals in the state should not expect to receive any doses until the end of January.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm James Fox.

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