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Editorial: Amid leadership vacuum, southwest Missouri tops nation in new coronavirus cases.

Editorial: Amid leadership vacuum, southwest Missouri tops nation in new coronavirus cases.

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Ozarks pool party

At the height of the pandemic in May 2020, revelers packed into a Lake of the Ozarks venue, making national waves. Missouri's southwest region is again in the news, this time as the national epicenter of the dangerous new Delta variant of the coronavirus.

It has been more than a year since viral videos of crowded, maskless pool parties made Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks into America’s poster child for pandemic recklessness. Missouri’s southwest corner is once again drawing unwanted national attention, this time for leading the nation in resurgent coronavirus infections, driven by the dangerous new Delta variant that has inflicted widespread devastation in India.

The mostly rural Missouri region’s low vaccination rates and cultural rejection of basic pandemic precautions has created the perfect storm for this renewed threat to flourish. The region is deep-red Republican territory — Gov. Mike Parson is a native — which gives the state’s Republican leaders a special responsibility to make the public there understand the danger residents are creating for themselves and others.

On Memorial Day weekend of last year, while America was struggling with the height of the pandemic, life at the bars, pools and other party venues in and around Lake of the Ozarks was going on as if folks didn’t have a care in the world. Video of some of the partying fed the weird national debate (which continues to this day) about whether to take the coronavirus seriously. The fact that the political right has largely come down as a “no” says as much as anything about the dysfunction at that end of the ideological spectrum today.

Because so many of the Missouri partiers back then were visiting from other areas, it was impossible to quantify just how much of a viral spread those parties spawned. But today’s numbers are clear: As of Monday, Missouri was leading the nation in both new coronavirus cases and new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, according to The New York Times tracker.

The state also had the nation’s highest percentage increase of new cases, with a 72% rise over the past two weeks. Missouri’s virus death rates are still roughly in line with the national average — though experience shows that death rates virtually also rise with a lag time after infection rates.

The state’s spikes are being driven by soaring cases in southwest Missouri, and state health experts say testing indicates it’s primarily coming from the Delta variant. That new strain is more communicable than the original, making rural Missouri’s low vaccination rates a viral welcome mat.

As the Post-Dispatch’s Michele Munz reported this week, health officials have taken to venting their frustration on social media. “Bed capacity is strained. [Emergency room] waits are long. COVID patients are younger, sicker and unvaccinated,” Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, tweeted last week. “Vaccines are free, available and effective. What are you waiting for?”

It’s a good question, and one that Parson and other Republican leaders from the region should be pressing loudly to residents — before rising death rates again turn southwest Missouri into an embarrassing national cautionary tale.

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