FORT SMITH -- The message from the city's two hospitals is consistent: Residents of Sebastian and Crawford counties need to get the covid-19 vaccine to protect themselves and their community.
Leaders of Baptist Health and Mercy Fort Smith on Monday released a video urging people to get vaccinated while addressing concerns and listing reasons to do so. Their urgency comes as the intensive care units at Mercy and Baptist are filled mainly with patients under 60 years old, according to nurses at the hospitals.
Among residents of Sebastian and Crawford counties, 27.2% and 27.9% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Raed Khairy, infectious disease specialist at Baptist, said in the video almost all of his hospitalized patients are unvaccinated.
Dr. Paul Bean, Mercy Fort Smith chief of medical affairs, in the video estimated more than 80% of the population needs either to get vaccinated or get the disease to reach herd immunity for the delta variant of covid-19.
"The perception is that this is over, and why would I go get vaccinated now? But the reality is, is that this is not over. The virus keeps mutating. The latest mutation -- the delta variant, which is now the predominant type of covid in our community -- is now more infectious than the previous ones," he said.
Debbie Hewett, Mercy critical care director, said people need to get the vaccine whether they've had covid-19 or not.
Khairy said he's seeing sicker, younger patients contract covid-19 at his hospital. He also said covid-19 patients are going on life support within a few days of arrival and have higher mortality.
The patients aren't allowed to see visitors, said Baptist infection control nurse Carrie Brewton.
"Saying goodbye to your loved one over speakerphone or Skype is no way to say goodbye to your loved one, and sometimes, it happens that fast," said Brewton.
Patients with the virus also take up hospital beds, leading hospitals to send patients admitted for ailments that could otherwise be taken care of in-house to other cities for treatment, Khairy said.
Covid-19 patients also expose nurses to the virus, Hewett said.
"There's a huge nursing shortage in the United States, and then put covid on top of that and have nurses out because they're sick, and it's going to get worse if there's nobody to take care of you," Hewett said.
Health care officials in the video listed several reasons given for not getting the vaccine. These include the mRNA science behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and concern the vaccine will affect pregnancy.
Hewett said the vaccine hasn't been shown to cause infertility. Bean said the mRNA -- or messenger ribonucleic acid -- science behind two of the three available vaccines was developed about 20 years ago, during the SARS coronavirus outbreak.
An mRNA vaccine teaches cells how to make a protein or piece of a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects a person from getting infected if the real virus enters their body, according to the CDC's website.
"They've just adapted it for covid in this case, so this methodology has been tried and true. So it's not experimental treatment," said Bean.
Brewton said youth need to get vaccinated before school starts in August because "they're the number one population in that building." Bean said it would be heartbreaking for a student to bring the virus home.
Students who bring covid-19 back to their homes would be a catalyst for the virus surge, said Khairy.
All Arkansans 12 and older may get the vaccine, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
Bean recognized the covid-19 vaccine is "a polarizing issue." Because of this, he asked people to speak with their health care providers about getting vaccinated.
"Vaccines are very effective," Khairy said. "They prevent critical care illness, they prevent you from going on life support, they save lives. Everybody should get vaccinated."
Anyone in Arkansas who wishes to get the covid-19 vaccine may find a location to do so at https://bit.ly/3kYvlUR.
(Source: Arkansas Department of Health)