June 28, 2021 -- As most of the U.S. is moving out of the pandemic, COVID-19 cases are rising in Missouri, particularly in areas where few people are vaccinated.
The Delta variant is spreading at an alarming rate, and hospital intensive care beds are going to young, unvaccinated patients, the Associated Press reported.
“If people elsewhere in the country are looking to us and saying, ‘No thanks’ and they are getting vaccinated, that is good,” Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield, which has seen a leap in COVID-19 patients, told the AP.
“We will be the canary,” he said.
Missouri now leads the country with the highest rate of new COVID-19 infections, according to The New York Times. The increase in cases is most prominent across farming regions in the northern and southwestern parts of the state, including Springfield and Branson. At the same time, fewer than 40% of people are vaccinated in those counties.
The case numbers are still below the winter surge, but the trajectory is steeper. Missouri health officials reported more than 900 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, jumping up to numbers last seen in February, according to Fox 2 Now. The seven-day average is higher than 500 daily cases for the first time since the beginning of May.
In addition, more than 150 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized at two Springfield hospitals this week, as compared with about 30 last month. The patients are younger, with about 60% under age 40, Frederick told the AP. His hospital is hiring traveling nurses and respiratory therapists to help as health care workers face burnout.
“I feel like last year at this time it was ‘health care heroes,’ and everybody was celebrating and bringing food to the hospital and doing prayer vigils and stuff, and now everyone is like, ‘The lake is open. Let’s go,’” he said. “We’re still here doing this.”
Low vaccination rates could cause surges in other states, the AP reported. Across Missouri’s southern border, areas of Arkansas also have low vaccination rates and reported the largest jump in cases this week than in the past three months.
Public health officials are watching local outbreaks across the country and the spread of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India. It has become the dominant strain in Springfield, Missouri, the AP reported, and now makes up about 93% of samples sent for analysis, as compared with 70% three weeks ago.
“My concern would be that this is a preview of what is to come in other parts of the country that don’t have higher vaccination rates,” Aaron Schekorra, a spokesman for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, told the AP.
Nationwide, the variant now accounts for more than 20% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and half of new cases in numerous states, including Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
To combat the spread of the variant, local public health officials are encouraging those between ages 18-26 to get vaccinated and are giving away incentives such as free beer and cash, though a small number of people have taken up the offer.
“We’ve been seeing much younger patients needing management within the hospital,” Ivy Garcia, a critical care nurse at CoxHealth in Springfield, told ABC News.
“Some as young as their late teens, in their 20s, in their 30s,” she said. “Unfortunately, all of those unvaccinated and very sick.”