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The Illinois county with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate faces steep challenges getting shots in arms: 'We could very easily slip backward'

Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

The numbers in these largely rural, less-populated areas are in stark contrast to the Chicago area, where more than half of residents are fully vaccinated in the city, suburban Cook and the collar counties.

In southern Illinois, home to some of the least-vaccinated areas in the state by population, the number of COVID cases has been already been creeping up.

The Southern Seven Health Department — which serves Alexander County and a half-dozen others on the state’s southern tip — reported 11 coronavirus cases in the week ending June 25; the following week, just before the July 4 weekend, the public health department reported 40 cases.

“We definitely started sounding some warning bells,” said Nathan Ryder, community outreach coordinator for the health department.

He points to the recent spike in cases in neighboring Missouri, just over the Mississippi River from Alexander County, as an ominous warning.

Overwhelmed hospitals in the southwest section of the state have sent COVID-19 patients to St. Louis and Kansas City. Caseloads and hospitalizations in the Ozarks area have reached levels unseen since the winter, largely driven by the highly infectious delta variant of the virus first found in India.


“There’s definitely cause for concern, especially with the lack of individuals getting themselves vaccinated here in the southern region,” Ryder said. “What’s going on in southern Missouri is not a pretty situation. We’re just coming out of a bad situation in Illinois. Things are looking good. Though we could very easily slip backward on the slope and go back to where we were in November and December. And we do not want to be there. I don’t think anyone wants to go through that experience again.”

One Alexander County resident said she doesn’t have a compelling reason to get immunized against the new coronavirus.

“I decided not to,” said the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous. “I put some thought in it. It was kind of obvious to me. I’m not too concerned. I’m pretty healthy.”

She works at a local grocery store in Olive Branch, an unincorporated area of about 500 residents. While she knows a few people who caught COVID-19, their cases weren’t severe.


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