COVID-19 cases in Missouri reach highest level since January
O'FALLON — Missouri's health department on Thursday reported the highest daily count of new COVID-19 cases since the dead of winter, and the association representing the state's hospital is warning that the health care system is potentially on the brink of a crisis.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services cited 2,302 newly confirmed cases of the virus, the largest one-day count since mid-January, as the delta variant continues to spread in a state with one of the nation's lowest vaccination rates. Hospitalizations ticked up statewide by 47 to 1,331, as did the number of patients in intensive care units, rising by 19 to 409.
Nearly half of the ICU patients — 196 — are hospitalized in southwestern Missouri. Greene County and Springfield leaders are asking the state to fund an alternative care site since hospitals in Springfield are near capacity. State health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said officials in the agency "are identifying available resources and options to meet the needs of our southwest communities, including matching resources to the request we received yesterday evening from Springfield."
Katie Towns, interim department director for Greene County and Springfield, said it isn't yet known where the alternative care site would be. Options include dorms, a hotel or some other large space.
Despite the surge in cases, "we haven't seen a significant increase" in vaccinations, Towns said.
The Missouri Hospital Association, in its weekly COVID-19 update, called the situation in southwestern Missouri "dire" and said signals for the rest of Missouri are "foreboding." Statewide, hospitalizations are up 112% from late May lows, though still far below the winter peak of nearly 3,000.
But at least one hospital, Mercy Springfield, was reporting pandemic high numbers of hospitalizations. Erik Frederick, the hospital's chief administrative officer, wrote on Twitter Thursday that there had been 16 deaths so far this week.
Ashley Kimberling Casad, vice president of clinical services at Cox South Hospital in Springfield, said hospitals in the Cox system expect to exceed the winter peak of patients by next week. Among the current patients are 11 people under age 30, something that was rare in the winter.
The hospital association offered an ominous warning.
"If the rest of the state follows current trajectories — with delta systematically picking off localized pockets of unvaccinated Missourians — our entire health care system will be very near the brink it flirted with during the winter of 2020-2021," the update stated.
In fact, cases and hospitalizations are rising in the state's big cities, too. Dr. Clay Dunagan of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force said the vast majority of people hospitalized in the region are unvaccinated.
Dunagan urged a return to wearing masks in public, and pleaded for people to get vaccinated. Otherwise, he said St. Louis could equal the surge experienced in the winter "or perhaps exceed it."
"In summary, this virus is coming back, and it's stronger than ever before," Dunagan said.
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Mike Parson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Parson said last week that hospitals weren't overwhelmed and that the state was "not in a crisis mode."
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told McClatchy Newspapers in an interview published Thursday in the Kansas City Star that Missouri is the most worrisome place in the U.S. right now.
"This is a variant, this delta variant, that's highly contagious. And so as it starts to spread, anybody who's not vaccinated is in a danger zone. … The chances of getting infected in Missouri are getting really high and that means potentially serious illness or even death," Collins said.
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.