WASHINGTON — Missouri is the spot on the map raising alarms for federal officials as the COVID-19 delta variant surges in the Midwest and South.

“When I look at the map Missouri actually jumps out as the place that I’m most worried about because there’s a lot of cases now happening very rapidly,” Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told McClatchy in an interview Thursday.

“This is a variant, this delta variant, that’s highly contagious. And so as it starts to spread, anybody who’s not vaccinated is in a danger zone... The chances of getting infected in Missouri are getting really high and that means potentially serious illness or even death,” said Collins, whose agency is the federal government’s primary medical research arm.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) is now reporting an average of nearly 1,200 confirmed new cases each day, compared to fewer than 400 a month ago. The state is behind only Arkansas in its per-capita rate of new cases, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

At the same time, Missouri continues to struggle with low vaccination rates in many areas. It has the 13th worst vaccination rate among all states.

Rural Missouri, in particular, has lagged in vaccination rates, a trend that has also been persistent in other states. In Pulaski County, for example, only 14.3% of people have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to state health data.

“I grew up on a farm and I appreciate people in rural counties tend to be pretty independent minded and that’s good. And maybe therefore do have less access to medical care and less likely to depend on it, maybe a little more suspicious about messages coming from governments or from the big city,” said Collins, who was raised on a farm in rural Virginia.

“But this is the case where this virus doesn’t really care whether you’re in a rural community or city community. And people in rural communities in Missouri and elsewhere are now getting sick and large numbers.”

Southwest Missouri is the epicenter of the latest wave, and rising hospitalizations are pushing medical providers in Springfield to the breaking point. Local officials on Wednesday asked DHSS and the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) to fund an alternative care site as COVID patients begin to overwhelm the city’s two major hospitals, CoxHealth and Mercy.

The facilities are treating more virus patients than they did during Missouri’s previous pandemic peak this past winter. As of Thursday morning, CoxHealth had 139 COVID-positive patients and Mercy had 129. Mercy Springfield Chief Administrative Officer Erik Frederick tweeted that 16 virus patients at the hospital have died so far this week.

“We went from virtually zero patients to about 100-plus in about seven months in the first couple waves, and in this wave we went from, at least at Cox, about 14 patients seven weeks ago to about 130 today,” CoxHealth CEO Steve Edwards said at a Wednesday news conference. “So the ramp up time has been accelerated, almost triple.”

Late Wednesday, DHSS spokeswoman Lisa Cox said in an email that DHSS is working with SEMA and local officials “to determine how we will best meet the current health care needs of the community.”

COMBATING MYTHS

Collins pointed to myths about the vaccines that have circulated on social media as a driving factor in deterring people from getting vaccinated.

“Some people were worried the vaccine might cause infertility. There’s been a lot of stuff on the internet about that,” Collins said. “There’s absolutely no evidence for that in men or in women. We now have tens of thousands of pregnant women who have been immunized and we have no indication that that’s causing any problem with the pregnancy.”

He said other people have avoided vaccinations because they already had COVID, but he said these people still need to get vaccinated, especially to protect against variants.

“The vaccine gives you even a better shot at avoiding getting reinfected with this delta variant. Simply having COVID before is not nearly as reliable as having COVID plus the vaccine,” Collins said.

Collins emphasized the spread in southern Missouri poses a threat to Kansas City and St. Louis as well.

“What we’ve seen in every other surge -- and we’ve had way too many of them -- is that the things that are nearby geographically are at highest risk and people move around and they bring the virus with them, so nobody in that general vicinity should feel as if this is just a problem for some people in the rural community,” Collins said.

“This is a problem for the whole area. This is a problem for the whole nation,” Collins said. “Basically, somebody once said, we had a division in the country between vaccinated and unvaccinated. Or maybe we have a division between people who are vaccinated and people who are sick, because that’s the direction we’re going.”

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt lamented Missouri’s low vaccination rate during a news conference Wednesday.

“We’re in a fight now, here and throughout the world frankly, where it’s sort of vaccine versus variant. The way you don’t have all these new strains is you don’t give the virus anywhere to live and become more resilient,” said Blunt, who comes from Springfield where the virus is surging.

Blunt’s strong exhortations to get vaccinated are in stark contrast to fellow Republican, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who has offered a mixed message in recent weeks and panned President Joe Biden’s administration’s vaccination outreach efforts.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that she couldn’t make an assessment about why rural Missouri had fallen far behind the rest of the region in vaccination rates. But she called for elected officials to avoid polarizing the issue.

“We need to be clear and direct about our messaging. There is misinformation out there. Sometimes that’s traveling on platforms. Sometimes that’s traveling, unfortunately, out of the mouth of elected officials,” Psaki said Wednesday.

“So, it’s really case by case, but the most important thing we can do is not see this as a partisan issue because, certainly, the virus is killing people, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.”

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