In Springfield, Mo., firefighters give vaccinations. Churches rumble schedule vaccine clinics. Summer school students and staff in public schools are wearing masks again.
In the coming weeks, dozens of traveling nurses will arrive at one of the city’s two largest hospitals; additional ventilators from the Missouri and Arkansas area were transported to the other major hospital after it ran short over the weekend of July 4.
The COVID-19 outbreak in southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas has become the nation’s largest and is largely caused by the highly contagious delta strain. Officials warn it could continue to grow unchecked if vaccination rates remain low.
“We are really in a very dangerous situation,” Springfield mayor Ken McClure said at a news conference Monday. “Although we are one of the few unfortunate early hotspots of the delta variant, we are not giving up. It is not too late. We have to stay on track.”
In Missouri, the seven-day average of new cases is nearly 1,400 new positive cases per day, more than 150% more than a month ago. In Arkansas, that number is up 287%.
The number of cases and hospitalizations in the Ozarks region have reached levels not seen since the winter, officials say. In several counties in Missouri and Arkansas, records have reached or surpassed their winter peaks.
according to the most recent data available of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant is responsible for more than 73% of new cases in Missouri, by far the highest percentage of any state.
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department reported 17 new COVID deaths in its most recent reporting period, which ended July 4. None of them were fully vaccinated.
“People are begging to take the vaccine while there is still time. If you could see the exhaustion in the eyes of our nurses zipping body bags, we beg you,” tweeted Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth, a six-hospital system in southwest Missouri based in Springfield.
Springfield hospitals are feeling the brunt of the region’s outbreak
CoxHealth’s Springfield hospital was treating 125 COVID-19 patients as of Monday. The city’s other major hospital, Mercy Hospital Springfield, reported 134 patients with COVID-19, including several children. More than 20 were on a ventilator.
As a result of the influx, Mercy Hospital announced on Sunday that it would open a sixth COVID-19 unit. Last year only five were needed.
According to Greene County health data, more than half of patients come from rural counties around Springfield.
There are few pandemic restrictions left in the southern part of Missouri, which is a haven for tourism in the summer. The lakes and rivers of the Ozarks attract tourists from all over the region for camping, boating, and lake vacations. The town of Branson hosts dozens of live music shows every week. Memorial Day and July 4 draw huge numbers of people to the area.
But many of the rural counties that make up this part of Missouri have the lowest vaccination rates in the state. In total, about 45% of Missouri residents have received their first injection, but in more than 20 counties in southern Missouri, less than a quarter of residents have received it.
“I think we were all hoping we wouldn’t see much of COVID this summer, but that’s certainly not the case here in Springfield,” said William Sistrunk, the chief infectious disease physician at Mercy Hospital. in conversation with NPR.
David A. Lieb/AP
David A. Lieb/AP
Vaccination rates have slowly risen
Gov. Mike Parson has encouraged Missourians to get the vaccine, as he has. He lifted the state’s pandemic restrictions in May and has spoken out about Missourians’ right to refuse the vaccine if they wish. In June, he signed a bill that limits the ability of local governments to issue public health restrictions.
parson said: last week he would oppose a door-to-door vaccination campaign by government employees.
“We should all work together to find a solution to get more vaccine into the arms of more people, not trying to force people to take it, not trying to scare them. Just make sure they understand the facts Parson said, speaking to reporters in Kansas City.
Local officials in southern Missouri, especially Springfield, are taking a more active stance in encouraging vaccinations.
On Monday, the mayor and local health officials held a press conference at a church with which the city partners to distribute vaccines, where they denounced misinformation and politicking about vaccines.
Asked about the low immunization cheer at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, the county’s acting health director said it was heartbreaking.
“To hear people cheer for the tool that can save lives while we are in the midst of a crisis where people are dying – it breaks my heart,” said Katie Towns, acting director of the county’s health department.
Vaccination rates have risen slowly but steadily in this part of Missouri. Mercy Hospital Springfield has seen increased demand for vaccination appointments in recent days, officials say, and is now vaccinating about 250 people a day, up from about 150 earlier in the summer.
“Gradually, over the past week or a few weeks, we’ve seen a small increase in the number of people who are interested. I think hopefully they realize that this is a pretty serious situation,” Dr. Nancy Yoon, Chief Medical Officer for the Springfield-Greene County Department of Health, told NPR member station KCUR.
Healthcare workers brace themselves for a long summer
Now the outbreak that started in the Ozarks is beginning to spread across the state. Case data and sewer monitoring show a rise in the Kansas City and St. Louis metro areas, state officials say. In St. Louis County, the county with the state’s third-highest vaccination rate, cases are up 63% in the past two weeks.
“Unfortunately, Missouri turned out to be one of several states that do have those vulnerabilities,” Dr. George Turabelidze, state epidemiologist with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, told St. Louis Public Radio. “Those are places where people are under-vaccinated, where people have low natural immunity and… [where] some communities assumed the pandemic was already behind us.”
In Springfield, health workers have braced themselves for what they expect to be a long and challenging summer as the number of people hospitalized in the county has continued to rise.
“You feel like you’re banging your head against that proverbial brick wall, trying to tell people, to understand what we’re seeing,” said Erik Frederick, chief executive of Mercy Hospital, in an interview with NPR.
‘This is real. It’s here for us.’
St. Louis Public Radio and KCUR contributed to this report.
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