Springfield officials: Cancelled request for temporary hospital not sign COVID crisis abated

On Thursday 267 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the area — the second highest figure the health department has reported since the start of the pandemic.

By: and - July 29, 2021 7:04 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).

A request for a temporary hospital was canceled because the state was too slow to act and local providers made emergency accommodations, not because the Delta variant crisis has diminished, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department said Thursday afternoon.

Gov. Mike Parson cited a decline in cases in Greene County and surrounding areas when his office announced the alternative care site request had been withdrawn. The Springfield health department pushed back, saying it was incorrect to cite falling cases and hospitalizations as the reason.

In fact, on Thursday alone, 267 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the area — the second highest figure the health department has reported since the start of the pandemic.

The highest census was at 271 six days ago on July 23.

Thursday afternoon, Parson’s office announced that the local health department and Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management had withdrawn a request for funding to set up temporary hospital beds so existing hospital space can be dedicated to caring for the most severely ill.

A news release from the governor’s office said local officials “believe current state efforts to boost health care capabilities are sufficient to meet existing needs,” adding that a site was ready to open as early as next week.

It went on to note that while cases are still high overall, new cases in Greene County have dropped by 24 percent in the last seven days compared to the previous week.

Katie Towns, right, director of the Springfield-Green County Health Department, conducts a briefing Tuesday on rising COVID-19 cases. (Screenshot from Springfield-Greene County Health Department livestream)

But shortly after, Springfield-Greene County Health Department Director Katie Towns said in a statement that local healthcare partners had to forge ahead to establish sufficient capacity through hiring additional staff and repurposing existing space as they awaited the state’s help to address the immediate need.

“Because this additional capacity allows us to address our current surge, and knowing that an alternate care site was at least another week away from being operational, there is no longer an immediate need for an alternate care site,” Towns said.

“This decision was not made in response to falling cases or hospitalizations,” she later said, noting 32 deaths due to the virus have been reported by the health department so far this month.

In a statement, Kaitlyn McConnell, a spokeswoman for CoxHealth, said the hospital system is near its peak of admissions, with more than 160 COVID patients. With hospitalized patients rising in other parts of the state, “we felt that it was prudent to pause our request so that resources could be directed to those regions to serve other Missourians.”

The hospital system recently heard the earliest an alternate care site would be in place would be next Friday, Aug. 6 —  nearly a month after initial conversations, she said.

“We could not wait weeks or even days given that lives were on the line,” McConnell said, later adding: “We appreciate the government’s efforts to serve, but in this case, response lagged too far behind the need.”

Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services, and Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, both said they had nothing to add Thursday. O’Connell referred to the state’s COVID dashboard to exemplify Greene County’s recent decline in cases.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The increase in new cases seemingly has begun to abate in southwest Missouri. In the seven days through Thursday, the state health department data shows a 13 percent decline in cases over the previous seven days for 22 local health departments in the southwest with almost 1 million people.

From 4,706 cases from July 16 to July 22, about 670 a day, the region reported 4,077 cases in the past seven days, or 582 per day.

Per-capita infection rates, however, remain far above the state as a whole. For the month so far, the region is double the state rate. The difference has narrowed as other regions endure the Delta variant surge and the southwest rate of 417 cases per 100,000 was only 52 percent above the state rate over the past seven days.

Thursday’s clarification from the local health department was the latest public dispute over the alternate care site request.

The health department first issued a call for a site over two weeks ago on July 14, and discussions had been underway prior, Aaron Schekorra, a spokesman for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department previously said. At the time, local hospital officials said they hoped the site could be operating in a matter of days. Parson previously said the state would “for the most part probably” fulfill the request and suggested local CARES Act funds may help cover the costs.

But paperwork issues had made it necessary for the request to be resubmitted and was received on July 19 by the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA). 

Last week, SEMA elevated the request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The application issues led to confusion, with a CoxHealth CEO Steve Edwards telling reporters the application for a site had been “rejected,” according to the Springfield News-Leader. Parson and state officials clarified at a press conference last week that the application had never been turned down, and Parson called reports it had been “total misinformation.”

“Within 24 hours, almost every bit of that request had been answered or was in the process of being fixed,” Parson said. “The propaganda that was being said down there about something being rejected was totally that.”

A day later, Parson announced that the state would be fulfilling other parts of Springfield’s request and sending “ambulance strike teams” with 10 advanced life support ambulances, 20 medical personnel, two strike team leaders and one logistics specialist to support transport of COVID-19 patients in Springfield. The request was fulfilled by the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management.

According to Thursday’s news release, the ambulance strike teams covered nearly 19,000 miles transporting 87 COVID patients to hospitals outside of Springfield through Wednesday, with some roundtrips taking over nine hours.

In addition, a Monoclonal Antibody Centralized Infusion Center that was established with state assistance served 88 patients from last Friday through Wednesday.

The governor office’s news release touted the collaboration as “a model to utilize” as the state continues to see a rapid spread of the Delta variant. Towns said the health department was grateful for the state’s assistance through the strike teams and antibody center, which was fulfilled in “a timely manner” and helped create more capacity.

“We hope that other communities and the state have learned just how quickly this Delta variant spreads and how quickly our healthcare systems can be overwhelmed,” Towns said. “We are grateful for the resilience and swift action of our overwhelmed healthcare partners.”

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.