The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients jumped by nearly 27% over the Fourth of July weekend in a hard-hit area of Missouri where immunization rates are low, leading to a temporary ventilator shortfall and a public call for help from respiratory therapists.
The Delta variant, first identified in India, is spreading rapidly, straining hospitals in Springfield and raising fresh fears that the situation could soon grow worse as holiday gatherings seed fresh cases. Missouri leads the nation with the most new cases per capita in the past 14 days.
As of Monday, CoxHealth and the city's other hospital, Mercy Springfield, were treating 213 COVID-19 patients, up from 168 on Friday. As recently as May 24, the two hospitals had just 31 patients.
"After what we've seen in the last month everyone is just holding their breath, especially after a holiday weekend like this, knowing that there were large gatherings," said Erik Frederick, the chief administrative officer of Mercy Springfield.
Many communities that held off on Fourth of July festivities last year held them this year.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson tweeted a picture of himself at a fireworks celebration in the tourist town of Branson, a large crowd behind him. In the surrounding county, just 29.3% of residents have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, state data shows. That is below the state rate of 44.7% and the national rate of 54.7% but not unlike several other southwest Missouri communities. Some have vaccination rates in the teens.
Parson last week urged people to get vaccinated. But he has consistently declined to enact restrictions to control the spread of the virus, instead asking residents to take "personal responsibility." Missouri never had a mask mandate, and Parson signed a law last month placing limits on public health restrictions and barring governments from requiring proof of vaccination to use public facilities and transportation.
His communication staff didn't immediately return an email Monday from The Associated Press. Nor did the spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
CoxHealth in Springfield has been transferring out four or five patients a day for the past week to 10 days as it tries to bring in more traveling nurses to help, said Ashley Kimberling Casad, vice president of clinical services at the hospital.
"Our projections are only showing us continuing to go up," she said, noting that positivity rates are spiking. "We generally see an increase in hospitalizations about two weeks after big events, so knowing it was the holiday weekend and probably lots of people spent time with family and friends and with our vaccination rates so low, we are going to expect that in two weeks it gets really, really busy."
The situation is complication because the hospital has only about one-third of the 280 traveling nurses it had at the peak of the winter surge and is working through a backlog of patients who deferred routine care during the surge. That means it can't handle as many COVID-19 patients as it once could.
Kimberling Casad said traveling nurses are also now harder to come by.
"They worked really hard all winter and spring and made good money so they want to take off this summer and get to spend it with their family and have fun, so we have a lot of positions posted for traveling nurses, but we are just having a harder time getting them in," she said.
So far, Mercy Springfield has been able to avoid transfers, but the situation worsened so quickly that it ran out of ventilators at one point over the weekend and had to borrow more, said Frederick.
"Luckily we got some in before we had another patient come in who required it so we were able to keep moving and have a surplus on hand should we need it, because we escalated ventilators very quickly," he said. "We went from the 30s to the 40s to almost 50 over about 72 hours."
In a tweet, he urged any respiratory therapist to "call us."
Frederick said projections show its patient count continuing to climb through early August before the numbers gradually begin to fall slowly through October.
"We just never thought we would be back here," he said, adding: "Unfortunately we are living in a region where the vaccine has not been adopted. It has not been accepted and here we are with hospitals full of COVID patients."