As COVID causes hospitals to fill, Springfield asks Missouri for temporary care site

With 231 patients under care for COVID-19, region approaches highest total for pandemic

By: and - July 14, 2021 6:02 pm

An empty ICU bed waits for a patient to arrive Nov. 23, 2020, at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in Lake Saint Louis. (photo by Armond Feffer).

Facing a looming shortage of beds caused by rapidly rising COVID-19 cases, healthcare providers in Springfield are asking the state to set up temporary hospital beds so existing hospital space can be dedicated to caring for the most severely ill.

The alternate care site would treat patients stable enough to be removed from local hospitals, said Springfield-Greene County Health Department Acting Director Katie Towns.

Towns said 231 patients are currently being treated for COVID-19 in the region — near the peak of 237 patients admitted in December. Southwest Missouri has, so far, borne the worst of the Delta variant surge that has caused case numbers soar statewide in recent weeks.

“CoxHealth and Mercy are projecting to see additional hospitalizations in the coming weeks based on the rate of spread,” Towns said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “That, along with the increase in severe illness and low vaccination rates, will cause the need for beds to outpace hospital capacity in the coming days. With that need in mind, we need help.”

Hospital leaders ticked through a grim list of statistics their facilities are facing on every front.

Brent Hubbard, president and chief operating officer of Mercy Hospitals Springfield, said there are 10 to 15 patients waiting on a post-acute bed each day that simply are not available in the area.

Across Mercy’s Springfield and regional hospitals, there are currently 141 COVID-positive patients. In the intensive care units, there are 37 COVID-positive patients with all but two of those on ventilators. Hubbard said that figure is “well over double” the peak seen during last fall’s surge of cases and hospitalizations. 

The hospital system is bringing 68 nurses from outside the region over the course of this month to relieve the burden on employees, he said.

“We have six nursing units now dedicated to COVID. And our death rate has doubled over the past week from one per day to 2.1 per day,” Hubbard said. “We are projecting to reach 200 COVID inpatients by the middle of August.”

The spreading Delta variant has been responsible for rapidly increasing case numbers in southwest Missouri since late May. By the second week of June, the region popular with tourists was leading the state in infection rates.

On Monday, the state health department took official notice of the outbreak, issuing a “hotspot advisory” for Greene County. An advisory was also issued Monday for Jasper County and on Wednesday for Barry, McDonald and Newton counties, all in southwest Missouri. 

In addition to the inpatient facility, Towns said the health department needs additional funding to staff beds, expand mobile testing staff, increase the capacity for antibody treatments and offer shelter for unhoused individuals who have tested positive for the virus.

The department also requested an emergency declaration to fund patient transfers via ambulance and extend state waivers regarding hospital capacity and use, Towns said.

Costs for the request are not yet finalized and would be covered by the Department of Health and Senior Services and Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, Towns said.

Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for DHSS, said Wednesday night that the department will work with SEMA and local Springfield entities to determine how to best meet the area’s needs.

If approved, Hubbard said they hope the site can be operating in “a matter of days, potentially weeks, versus months.”

Statewide, hospitalizations are at their highest level since mid-February. According to data reported Wednesday by the Department of Health and Senior Services, there were 1,284 inpatients being treated on Sunday.

The number of inpatients is increasing at an average of 35 per day.

In Greene County and throughout the state, the Delta variant has continued its uncontrolled spread.

Over the past seven days, Greene County has averaged 190 cases per day, state health department data shows. That is up from 123 cases per day in the last seven days of June.

Statewide, the seven-day average of reported cases was 1,607 on Wednesday, up from 886 per day on June 30. In some of the state’s larger counties, the rate has more than doubled.

As areas of the state face some of the worst conditions they’ve seen during the pandemic, just last week Gov. Mike Parson drew criticism for saying the state’s healthcare system “remains stable.”

On Tuesday, Parson accused officials in southwest Missouri of “just trying to blame somebody for this virus.”

“The virus itself is to blame,” he told reporters, according to The Kansas City Star.

Parson said healthcare leaders need to be encouraging people on the importance of the vaccine “instead of trying to force people to take a vaccine or literally just scare them into taking a vaccine because we know that doesn’t work.”

That same day U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt struck a different tone and said the country and world is in a fight of “vaccine versus variant”.

“You need to get vaccinated, even if you think you don’t have an individual problem. We’ve got to stop having places for the virus to begin to mutate, to begin to develop a different variant,” Blunt said, later adding: “We are not nearly in as bad a place as we were but we’re not nearly in as good a place as we would all like to be.”

Last week, Parson also told reporters that there should be no shortage of ventilators in the state, pointing to a state stockpile and saying it was a “management problem” if there was one.

Asked about Parson’s comments on there being no shortages of supplies, CoxHealth President and CEO Steve Edwards said Wednesday it speaks to how rapidly the Delta variant’s spread has exacerbated the situation.

“If you look at data from a couple of weeks ago, if you look at the whole state, it does look like plenty of beds,” Edwards said. 

But over the course of just seven weeks, the number of COVID patients hospitalized in Springfield rose from about 40 to well over 200, he said.

“So it’s hard to stay current,” Edwards said. “And we have to understand, beds don’t take care of patients — people do.”

Parson’s criticism of local officials’ tactics comes just a week after he publicly rebuffed door-to-door outreach, a strategy President Joe Biden recently reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to.

Asked about Parson’s comments Tuesday afternoon, Robert Knodell, the acting director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, said “we feel like our job out there as a state is to make sure that those vaccines are convenient, that they’re available to folks who reach that decision — they can get vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Members of a federal surge response team arrived last week to assist the state with issues like vaccine hesitancy and breakthrough infections.

Knodell said the state has “opened the doors wide open” for federal partners to come to Missouri and help.

Hospital leaders described frontline staff who are exhausted as they face a new wave of COVID cases that could be staved off with vaccinations.

“We’re going to care for patients regardless,” Edwards said. “But deep inside, it’s hard to make that same commitment, knowing you’re caring for someone who had a solution in their hand with a vaccine — they chose not to get.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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.