Missouri health officials predict weeks of rising COVID cases due to Delta variant

Summer surge moving into urban areas as cases in southwest Missouri continue to climb

By: - July 9, 2021 3:02 pm

Nurse Anita Perry, left, and Curtis Lanning, emergency coordinator, process samples during a May 2021 drive-up COVID-19 testing event at the Livingston County Health Center in Chillicothe. Livingston County was among the first places in the state to be hit with a surge of Delta variant cases. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

The Delta variant of COVID-19 is causing a surge in infection in Missouri’s large urban areas, and the state can expect at least “a few more weeks” of rising case numbers before an improvement, the state’s epidemiologist said Friday morning. 

Speaking to reporters in an online briefing just hours after the state reported its highest single-day case total since January, state Epidemiologist George Turabelidze said vaccinations are the only truly effective way to control the surge that began after the variant reached the state in early May.

“Because this is a highly transmissible infection, and this is a disease that has a long incubation period of two weeks, we do not expect things to turn around really very quickly,” he said. “We expect a few more weeks of cases continuing to rise or stabilizing at a high level before things start improving.”

On Friday morning, the Department of Health and Senior Services reported 2,160 additional COVID-19 cases, the most since 2,474 were recorded on Jan. 29. The highest single-day case total was 6,606 on Nov. 14.

The seven-day average of reported cases, about 400 on June 1, stood at 1,245 per day on Friday.

The highest infection rates continue to be seen in southwest Missouri, where Joplin has added 332 cases so far this month after recording 476 for the full month of June, and Greene County has seen 1,457 cases, about 60 percent of the June total.

But in the past 10 days, the contagion has pushed up case numbers in the major urban areas, with St. Charles County recording 119 percent more cases in the past seven days than in the final seven days of June. Cases are up 55 percent in eastern Jackson County, 54 percent in St. Louis County and 43 percent in Kansas City over the same comparison period.

“This virus doesn’t care whether we want it to be over or not,” Robert Knodell, acting director of the Department of Health and Senior Services told reporters Friday. “It is going to move among people where it has the opportunity.”

Hospitalizations, which reached a low of 628 inpatients on May 23, were 1,118 on Tuesday, the highest total since Feb. 25.

And despite warnings from Springfield-area providers that they are short of ventilators and staff are exhausted, Turabelidze said there is sufficient statewide capacity to absorb more patients.

Inpatient totals peaked at 2,862 hospitalizations on Dec. 22.

“We don’t see any impending catastrophe coming,” he said.

Turabelidze was joined at the hour-long briefing by Knodell and Adam Crumbliss, director of the Division of Community and Public Health.

Knodell described the tripling of daily case numbers over the past five weeks as an “uptick in cases” and urged vaccinations as the key strategy for containing it.

“It is the No. 1 most effective mitigation step Missourians over 12 can take to protect themselves,” Knodell said.

The message presented by state officials did not reflect the urgency of health care providers and public officials in the hardest-hit areas.

“This is a mass casualty event happening in slow motion,” Springfield Fire Chief David Pennington wrote in a tweet posted Thursday. ”EMS resources are depleted, and the hospital systems are overwhelmed. Our community is in crisis.”

And in the Lake of the Ozarks area, target of the first-ever hotspot advisory, issued Wednesday by the state health department, Dane Henry, CEO of Lake Regional Health System wrote that his hospital is overwhelmed.

“Things are bad,” Henry wrote to start the statement published by the Lake Sun Leader.

This COVID-19 Hotspot Advisory issued by the Department of Health and Senior Services warns that case numbers could triple in Camden, Miller and Morgan counties in the coming weeks. (Department of Health and Senior Services)

The advisory stated that cases in Camden, Morgan and Miller counties are likely to be “3 or more times higher in the coming weeks.” Camden had 27 cases in the first seven days of June and 146 in the seven days ending Friday. Miller County recorded 14 cases in the first week of June and 67 in the past seven days, while Morgan had five during that first week of June and 47 in the past week.

“At Lake Regional, we are already stretched to the limit,” Henry wrote. “Our hospital is very near capacity, and we are seeing exceptionally high numbers of Emergency Department patients daily. Our care teams are working harder than ever before as COVID strains our facility, already busy with summer visitors and routine patient care.”

That sentiment was echoed Friday morning in a tweet from Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth in Springfield.

“Begging people to take the vaccine while there is still time,” Edwards wrote. “If you could see the exhaustion in the eyes of our nurses who keep zipping up body bags, we beg you.

About 20 minutes later, Gov. Mike Parson tweeted that “Missouri’s health care system remains stable.”

Part of the emerging strategy to suppress the Delta variant is a $5 million public relations campaign to reach hesitant populations and another element is calling for federal help from newly created surge response teams. That relationship got off to a difficult start when Parson warned that “sending government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination would NOT be an effective OR welcome strategy in Missouri.”

At the time, there was only one member of the team, an epidemiologist, working in Springfield with the local health department.

Parson’s statement drew a rebuke Thursday from one of President Joe Biden’s key COVID-19 advisers, Jeff Zients, who said anyone mischaracterizing the administration’s attempts is “doing a disservice to the country.”

During the briefing Friday, the health department officials sought to clarify both the role of the federal team and why a strategy to ask and encourage vaccinations is the best way to get rates higher. As of Friday, 45 percent of all Missourians and 55 percent of people over 18 had initiated vaccination, compared to 55 percent of people nationwide and 67.4 percent over age 18.

The highest local vaccination rate in the state is in Boone County, with 51 percent of residents receiving at least one dose.

The request for federal help came initially from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, they said, and two members have arrived. One is studying vaccine hesitancy and communication and the other is studying infections among people who have been vaccinated, Turabelidze said. Other than that, he said the state is still waiting to find out more about the federal effort.

“We hope that very soon we will have more details so we can provide to you exactly how this strike team is, what their goal is and how they will function,” he said.

Parson tweeted Thursday that “we encourage anyone age 12 and up to be vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them.”

Missourians won’t accept a stronger message, the health officials said. 

Crumbliss said the $5 million campaign will emphasize individual communication and leaders trusted by their communities to push vaccines. Missouri’s motto is “The Show Me State” and Missourians are skeptical, Crumbliss said.

“That skepticism is a good reminder that fear is not the means by which to move forward in Missouri,” he said.

That mirrors what Parson said in Kansas City on Thursday.

“I don’t think we need to be out there trying to scare people into taking a vaccine,” Parson said to reporters.

There is plenty of vaccine available and anyone who wants it can get it without waiting, the officials said. Parson made the same point on Thursday.

“People are literally walking past that vaccine opportunity,” he said.

The low infection numbers of the spring, when Missouri was in the lowest five of the states for new cases and positive test rates hovered near 4 percent, made many think the worst of the pandemic was over, the state health officials said. Mask mandates were dropped and remaining restrictions on gatherings were lifted.

There was also a sense that places with higher vaccination rates would be protected from localized outbreaks, they said.

“All of those factors made us vulnerable as a state and it happened as predicted,” Turabelidze said.

But those estimates did not account for how rapidly the Delta variant spreads. Now it is the dominant strain in 22 of 30 wastewater systems monitored for signs of rising infection. And the large number of cases in the state make it possible a new variant will arise here, Turabelidze said.

“Everybody needs to understand clearly,” he said, “when you are experiencing infection, even if it is mild, you are making yourself into a breeding ground for new mutations.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.