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Southwest Missouri sees increase in COVID infections among children

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Virus Outbreak Missouri

Nurses and doctors in the CoxHealth Emergency Department in Springfield, Mo., wear personal protective equipment to treat patients with COVID-19, Friday, July 16, 2021. Southwest Missouri is having a surge in delta variant cases, with hospitals nearing capacity and requesting help from the state for staffing and an alternative care site. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP)

ST. LOUIS — Southwest Missouri’s biggest health department is focusing its efforts on an increase in COVID-19 infections among kids younger than 12 — an age group not eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Springfield-Greene County Health Director Katie Towns said Tuesday that the department was turning its limited disease investigation capacity toward children as the state, which is lagging in vaccination rates, continued to have an overall surge in infections, hospitalized patients and deaths.

“We’ve seen a rise in cases in that 0-11 age group, and we’ve also seen outbreaks in settings like day cares and camps,” Towns said. “We’ve moved to prioritize those types of cases so we can hopefully control disease spread among those who are most vulnerable.”

The infections among children probably are the result of the highly infectious delta variant spreading through the community, Mercy Springfield’s chief medical officer, Dr. Gregory A. Ledger said.

Officials said widespread vaccinations will be the only way to stop the delta surge from continuing to wreak havoc as it moves eastward along the Interstate 44 corridor to the St. Louis region. Public health officials recently issued “hot spot” advisories for three counties along the route.

“Vaccination is the most important tool for us to get out of COVID,” said Dr. Clay Dunagan, who leads the St. Louis region’s pandemic task force. “Once we get to sufficient levels (of vaccinated residents), the virus will stop circulating and we can put this behind us for some time.”

Meanwhile, hospitals in Springfield are in the thick of a COVID-19 surge in the roughly two dozen counties they serve.

Steve Edwards, the CEO of Springfield-based CoxHealth, said his hospital added capacity to the morgue this week as it and nearby Mercy Springfield had a combined 34 deaths in their hospitals over a four-day period.

The average age of those who are dying has drastically decreased in recent months. In Greene County, the average age of the 32 residents who died in July was 63 — down from 88 in March 2020.

Hospital officials said they’ve continually added capacity to account for younger, sicker, mostly unvaccinated patients.

Mercy Springfield asked 10 intensive care doctors from St. Louis to provide reinforcements for its beleaguered physicians, and CoxHealth has called in more than 200 traveling nurses to supplement its staff, officials said.

But the hospitals also said they hoped the state would approve a request to build a stand-alone, 50-bed “alternative care site” to provide even more help.

“Every time we place a COVID patient, we are taking a bed from another diagnosis or service we can provide for somebody else in the community,” said Brent Hubbard, COO of Mercy Springfield. “If we could get 15 or 20 patients placed in the alternative care site, that would help us greatly.”

Still, officials project hospitalizations will continue to rise, as will deaths, unless many people get vaccinated.

“There’s really no reason not to get vaccinated,” said Ledger, Mercy’s chief medical officer. “I just can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t want to do it to protect your family, community and yourself.”

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Katie Kull covers public safety for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She previously wrote about local government for the Springfield News-Leader. In her spare time, you can find her cooking, riding horses or spending time outdoors.

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