COVID-19 took the life of 48-year-old Ryan Vescovi, a popular and beloved pizza shop owner, school board member and familiar smile in Pleasant Hill.
“He was not vaccinated, but felt he was immune because he already had COVID,” his stepmother, Kathy Feist-Vescovi, told The Star this week.
Vescovi’s death Sept. 17 spurred much discussion online about natural immunity and whether people who have had the virus need the vaccine. His illness convinced his stepmom that she needed the shots.
“A family member being hospitalized with COVID is a harsh reminder to get vaccinated,” she wrote on Facebook a few days before he died.
“I finally got my second shot today, 8 weeks after the first. It’s never too late. Make the time. Because the role you play in your family’s life is far too important to risk a chance.”
Doubts about the vaccine perplex physicians and hospital administrators who see that overwhelmingly, the people dying of COVID-19 in the Kansas City area now are unvaccinated. Hospitals are running short on beds for non-COVID patients because they’re filled with unvaccinated people.
“It is all so avoidable,” said Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer for The University of Kansas Health System, during one of the daily COVID briefings.
During those briefings in recent months, KU physicians have frequently answered questions about whether COVID survivors have some protection.
Their answer has been consistent: Even if you’ve had COVID, you still need to be vaccinated, especially if you had the original strain that pre-dated the more contagious delta variant now rampant.
A study in August showed that hundreds of unvaccinated Kentucky residents who had been infected with the coronavirus through June were more than twice as likely to be reinfected as those who were fully vaccinated after they got infected.
The findings suggested that the vaccines offer better protection than natural immunity alone and that vaccines, even after prior infection, help prevent more infection.
After the study came out, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged people who have had COVID to get vaccinated.
“This study shows you are twice as likely to get infected again if you are unvaccinated,” she said in a statement. “Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads around the country.”
Studies have shown mixed results on how long or how well unvaccinated COVID survivors are protected.
Researchers for another study published in July in Nature magazine say their findings and others demonstrate that vaccinating patients who have had COVID-19 substantially boosted their immune response and gave them stronger resistance against newer variants, including delta.
People who have recovered from COVID-19 should get vaccinated “because they become bulletproof when they do so,” researcher Dr. Michel Nussenzweig told the medical journal JAMA Network Open.
Getting vaccinated “is the single greatest thing you can do to lower your risk of a serious outcome,” said epidemiologist Ryan Demmer at the University of Minnesota.
“There’s evidence that they help reduce your risk of infection. They don’t prevent it altogether, but we definitely know, because the trials were designed to study this, that they substantially reduce your risk of being hospitalized or dying.”
Physicians are frustrated by why some people would choose to take a chance on getting infected rather than getting vaccinated. Many vaccine-resistant people have said they’ll just get natural immunity from the virus, Stites has said.
But having COVID-19 is not just a few days in bed for many survivors who have dealt for months with other serious medical problems the virus caused — including serious damage to the heart and lungs — and the medical bills that come with them.
“If you’re unvaccinated, it’s almost a certainty that you will eventually get infected,” said Demmer.
“So the real question is, do I want to take my chances with the infection and these outcomes that we know can arise from infection, or am I going to try and minimize the likelihood of any bad outcome happening with the vaccination?”
Vescovi was a lifelong resident of Pleasant Hill, southeast of Kansas City in Cass County, where he played high school football and was known as a town prankster, his obituary says.
His most memorable prank? Putting soap in the historic downtown’s fountain and adding a fan “to make the largest bubbles the police department has ever seen,” says the obituary.
He owned and ran Guido’s Pizza Place, the family restaurant that bears his father’s name. Over Labor Day weekend, the Guido’s Facebook page posted a photo of Vescovi in a hospital bed, lying on his stomach, eyes closed, tethered to an oxygen nasal cannula.
“This picture tells our story,” said the post. “Ryan has been in the hospital battling Covid for the past couple of days so we are closing the store for the holiday weekend after Friday night’s service and to give the staff a break for working so hard.”
In a tribute, one customer wrote: “I’ve lived in my town, Pleasant Hill, my whole life. Which means I grew up eating Guido’s Pizza almost every Friday night before the high school football games.
“When you walked in, Guido Vescovi and then his son, Ryan, would always say hi and give the crust a little higher toss back in the kitchen. They knew us all. And if Ryan didn’t he’d still give you a big smile and welcome you to his restaurant. Unfortunately, we won’t get those smiles anymore.”
Vescovi collected sports cars and “Star Wars” memorabilia and hosted Halo tournaments when he wasn’t busy with other things. “He was also known as the master of Pac-Man, who could not be beat,” his obituary said.
He was serving his third term on the school board. “Ryan was a lovable man, very personable and had the energy of three or four people,” his stepmother said.
His wife, Lisa, and daughter, Vanna — he also had three sons — were with him when he died at Research Medical Center.
Funeral services were held Friday at Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church, according to his obituary posted by Stanley-Dickey Funeral Home.
After he died, people created a memorial with flowers and memorabilia outside the pizza place.
The signs bid loving farewell.
“Fly High Ryan.”
Includes reporting by The Star’s Sarah Ritter.