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Health officials in southwest Missouri believe dangerous variant is source of most virus cases

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A sudden explosion of coronavirus cases and a spike in the number of people hospitalized in southwest Missouri this week, plus random testing of virus samples, show that the dangerous Delta variant has become dominant in the area, says a disease investigator with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.

“It shows us that what we’ve got in the community is a much more infectious variant that we are having to deal with, which shows why we have such an explosion of cases not just in Greene County, but in southwest Missouri,” Kendra Findley, administrator of community health and epidemiology with Greene County, said Thursday.

Green County is home to Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, and is a neighbor of popular tourist destinations such as Branson and Lake of the Ozarks.

On Wednesday, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services issued a news release saying that the state “is experiencing a rise in individuals contracting the Delta variant” and that it “has become prevalent” throughout Missouri.

On Thursday, Missouri moved up to rank second among states with most new cases per capita in the past seven days, according The New York Times nationwide tracking site. That’s one place higher than the previous day.

Administrators at the two largest hospitals serving the state’s southwestern region — Mercy and CoxHealth — are exasperated with coronavirus patient loads increasing at an exponential pace that they have not previously seen in this pandemic.

Reporting long emergency room waits and 72 patients with COVID-19, Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield, turned to Twitter on Thursday with a passionate plea for residents to get vaccinated:

“Bed capacity is strained. ED waits are long. COVID patients are younger, sicker and unvaccinated. Vaccines are free, available and effective. What are you waiting for? 82? 102? 152? What about 1? 1 person you care about? You?”

In Greene County, 36% of the population has initiated vaccination. In most surrounding counties the figure is below 30%.

Reached by phone, Frederick said that a month ago the average number of patients in his hospital was in the teens. That began creeping up. The number suddenly hit 50 at the start of this week and has increased each day to 72 by Thursday. CoxHealth has seen similar numbers.

“Before, it took a few weeks or longer to ramp up like that,” Frederick said.

In addition, he said, doctors are seeing more young, healthy adults and pregnant woman in the hospital with COVID.

At the beginning of the pandemic, every person infected with the coronavirus would infect about two people, Finley explained. That number rises to about four with the Alpha variant. “With Delta, that estimation can be anywhere from five to eight. That is staggering.”

Recent research also shows that the Delta variant is associated with more severe illness.

Since early March, the county health department has sent five positive coronavirus test results a week to the state lab for genomic sequencing to determine if any involved variants, Findley said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also conducted surveillance for several months, randomly sequencing cases across the country and sending three to 20 results a week back to Greene County.

The Alpha variant that originated in the U.K. first appeared in Greene County in December, Findley said. It became the dominant variant in the county and the U.S.

A shift came in mid-May, when 70% of the surveillance results sent back to Greene County were determined to be the Delta variant, Findley said. This week, 90% made up the Delta variant.

Around the same time, the county went from averaging about 20 cases a day to 83.

Though the number of cases being tested for variants is small, Findley believes that a majority of the cases that Greene County and surrounding areas are seeing involve the Delta variant because of how quickly cases have jumped and the level of sickness.

Nationwide, the CDC estimates the variant may be responsible for nearly 10% of all new COVID-19 infections.

Findley also urged people to get vaccinated because studies show vaccines remain effective at preventing illness in cases involving the variant.

“It’s hard for this virus to move through a population if the population has some immunity against it,” she said. “Right now, we just don’t have that immunity, and it’s just burning through the population.”

Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth, warned that what southwest and northern Missouri are seeing could happen anywhere vaccination rates are low. Statewide, just 37% of Missouri’s population has completed vaccination.

“I think we need to be a harbinger for others,” Edwards said. “There is no reason to think what is happening in Springfield won’t happen across the country.”

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