A Springfield, Mo., hospital announced Tuesday that it expanded its morgue capacity amid an increase in COVID-19 deaths, while St. Louis began offering immunization incentives for some city employees and the county where Kansas City is located said it would require many workers to get immunized or undergo weekly testing.
Missouri has the nation's fourth-worst COVID-19 diagnosis rate over the past week, with one in every 360 people diagnosed with COVID-19. Its seven-day rolling average of daily deaths has nearly doubled over the past two weeks, according to data from John Hopkins.
CoxHealth brought in temporary cooling equipment because 75 patients died this month — 19 just since Friday — at its hospital in Springfield and other system hospitals in the region, CEO Steve Edwards said at a news conference.
The health system also has brought in about 200 traveling nurses and respiratory therapists, with about 60 more scheduled to arrive soon. Still, it's had to transfer some patients outside the strained southwest Missouri region.
Edwards said new projections show cases peaking in the next week or two, earlier than originally predicted, because the incubation period for the delta variant that makes up most of the new cases is so fast. "I hope that is the case," he said, adding. "It feels like every day we are at or near capacity."
Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations jumped 168% from a low point of 628 of May 23 to 1,684 on Aug. 24, state data shows. The jump was much sharper in sparsely vaccinated southwest Missouri, where the number of hospitalizations leapt by 443% and reached pandemic highs.
Mercy Springfield added another COVID-19 unit, said Brent Hubbard, the hospital's chief operating officer. He said numbers had dipped to 137, but only because 15 patients died over the past four days.
"It is difficult, and one of our coworkers said it best, and said it quite simply, 'It is hard, I never expected this,'" he recalled. "And I think all of us could say that. None of us expected to be where we are today."
He said vaccinations are key to stopping the virus' spread. One of Mercy Springfield's sites has seen the number of people seeking the vaccine each day rise from 150 to 250, he said. He urged more people to follow their lead, saying, "Please spare your family the heartbreak that we are seeing in our hallways every day."
Only 47.4% of Missourians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 56.8% nationally, state and federal data shows. The rate is far lower for younger residents, with just 26.5% of 12- to 14-year-olds and 36.5% of 15- to 24-year-olds getting at least one dose.
Hubbard also urged people to wear a mask, especially if they are unvaccinated, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course on some masking guidelines. The agency is now recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling infection surges.
While Hubbard acknowledged that masks are uncomfortable, "they are a lot less uncomfortable than being on a ventilator," he said.
Katie Towns, the head of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, said that the agency would recommend masking in light of new recommendations, particularly for children. But she declined to say whether the community would go as far as St. Louis and St. Louis County, where a mask mandate took effect Monday.
"At this point in time we are laser focused on the fact that we have a crisis with people dying and we need to get our vaccination rates up," she said.
The city of St. Louis announced Tuesday that nearly 6,000 of its workers will be eligible to receive $100 in gift cards and can use paid time off to get vaccinated.
"Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 remains the best way for St. Louisans to protect their families and greatly reduce their chance of ending up in the ICU, and we are using many different tools in our toolbox to encourage vaccination," Mayor Tishaura O. Jones said in a news release.
The state also rolled out a vaccine incentive program last week that includes $10,000 prizes for 900 lottery winners. About 250,000 people have registered so far, said health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox.
Meanwhile, employees who work for Jackson County will soon have to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or undergo weekly testing, County Executive Frank White Jr. said.
"Science and facts show the vaccine is the absolute best way to protect ourselves and others from serious illness or death," White said.