OSAGE BEACH, Mo. (AP) — Daryl Barker was passionately against a COVID-19 vaccination, and so were his relatives. Then 10 of them got sick and Barker, at just 31, ended up in a Missouri intensive care unit fighting for his life.
It’s a scenario playing out time and again at Lake Regional Hospital in Osage Beach, where 22 people died from the virus in the first 23 days of July. Many other hospitals across Missouri are fighting the same battle, the result of the fast-spreading delta variant invading a state with one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, especially in rural areas.
The Associated Press was given access inside Lake Regional, where just two months ago, no one was hospitalized with the virus. Doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital in the heart of the Lake of the Ozarks region are now dealing with an onslaught of COVID-19 patients — some of them struggling to stay alive.
“We’ve had a big-time delta virus surge here. A lot of admissions, a lot of people who are very sick and are dying,” said Dr. Harbaksh Sangha, Lake Regional’s chief medical officer. “So as a human being it’s very frustrating, but as a physician we just take care of whatever we get.”
Just 47.5% of Missourians have initiated vaccination, nearly 10 percentage points lower than the country as a whole. Around Osage Beach, a town of about 5,000 people that straddles two counties, state data shows only 38.6% of Camden County residents and 26.7% in Miller County have started the process.
Barker, of Branson, about 120 miles southwest of Osage Beach, understands the hesitancy.
“I was strongly against getting the vaccine,” Barker said through labored breathing. “Just because we’re a strong conservative family.”
In the U.S., many people who identify as politically and socially conservative have been more reluctant to be vaccinated — so much so that in Missouri, faith leaders have joined the effort to encourage shots. Meanwhile, the summer outbreak is so alarming that Democratic-led St. Louis city and county and Kansas City have reinstated mask mandates.
The virus has recently run through Barker’s extended family. Not only did he and his wife, Billie, get it, but so did eight other relatives.
Barker got so sick that his wife took him to the emergency room in Branson. He was sent home with oxygen, but got worse.
With the Branson hospital maxed out with COVID-19 patients, doctors contacted a dozen hospitals in all corners of the state. All were at capacity. Lake Regional was nearly full, too, but Dr. Joe Sohal, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist, found a bed for Barker.
He arrived critically ill. Placed on a ventilator, Barker was given a 20% chance of surviving.
“The doctor told me he was going to let my wife and kid in so I could say my goodbyes because he didn’t think I was going to pull through,” Barker said. In those conversations, he told his wife and 6-year-old son, Brody, that he loved them “and I wasn’t going to give up.”
Slowly, Barker started to recover. Sohal is optimistic but said Barker, who has been hospitalized for three weeks, isn’t out of the woods.
“This is the time when he’s going to get a lot better or a lot worse,” Sohal said.