Guest column: This is my plea -- get vaccinated!

Dr. Maryann Reese, president and chief executive officer of Saint Francis Healthcare System.

It is my privilege to lead the largest health care system between Memphis and St. Louis. Entrusted to me are nearly 3,000 employees and their families' livelihoods. My responsibility as a healthcare CEO extends beyond the walls of our hospital and clinics and into the communities we are called to serve. The current COVID-19 surge sweeping Missouri is cause for great alarm for our local healthcare infrastructure and our region.

Southeast Missouri relies on the health care services provided by Saint Francis Healthcare System and other regional hospitals. No one expects an emergency. When the worst happens to you or your loved ones, you rely on your local hospital. But what do you do when your local hospital is on diversion and no longer accepting patients? Or when there are no beds available so you wait and wait in the emergency department?

As a state, we lack the proper resources to care for the current surge of COVID patients -- things like nurses, ventilators and ICU beds. Just last month, B Magazine detailed the growing nursing shortage -- a shortage already strained by COVID before this latest surge. The demand for competent and compassionate nurses has only intensified. Patients increasingly need ventilators, and the state of Missouri ventilator cache is not an option for Southeast Missouri; those are already in use in Columbia, Springfield and St. Louis. With hospital resources already limited, many hospitals are forced to divert patients to others much farther away -- away from the care and comfort of home and family.

This may sound like last spring when masks and other personal protective equipment were severely limited, but that is not the case. We have masks. We have gloves. We have the supplies needed to care for patients. We are always ready to handle life's surprises. Since March 12, 2020, a multidisciplinary team of Saint Francis leaders and frontline staff, also known as Incident Command, has prepared for COVID. We have planned for every foreseeable scenario.

What we don't have is patience. Unlike last winter's surge, this is preventable. Across the nation, only 1% of COVID-positive inpatients are vaccinated -- 1%. The vaccines work. The vaccines are keeping patients out of the hospital and from dying. The risk of complications from COVID is significantly higher than the risks from the vaccine. The vaccine technology has been around for decades. Each vaccine has gone through all the standard and rigorous safety and effectiveness trials required by the FDA, simply in an abbreviated time frame.

The bottom line is the vaccines are safe and the best prevention against COVID.

People ask me, "What keeps you up at night?" This. My mind races trying to anticipate when the surge will reach Southeast Missouri and how we can brace for its indelible impact. Will we have enough staff to not only care for COVID patients but also your grandmother who fell and broke her hip? Will we be forced to triage patients and decide if your father gets our last remaining ventilator? Will my physicians be forced to intubate another 20-year-old patient who thought she was young enough and healthy enough not to need the vaccine?

This is my plea -- get vaccinated! As health care workers, we have a calling to serve. No matter the situation, we are prepared to care for our community. I ask that you get vaccinated and alleviate the burden on your local health care heroes.

I typically end most of my communication in hopeful anticipation of what is to come. While I remain hopeful that we will weather the coming surge with perseverance and grace, I pray we will not be forced to experience the nightmare our health care colleagues are living in southwest Missouri.

Please get vaccinated.

Dr. Maryann Reese is president and chief executive officer of Saint Francis Healthcare System.