Southwest Missouri in the ‘middle of a crisis”

Health officials urge vaccinations to prevent further spread of COVID-19


National News

June 28, 2021 - 2:59 PM

A member of the Missouri Army National Guard prepares to administer the Covid-19 vaccine. (Michael Thomas/Getty Images/TNS)

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The Farmers Market of the Ozarks was packed Saturday with shoppers browsing through stalls of coffee beans, pottery, fresh vegetables, soy candles and birdhouses. At one end of the market, staff from the local health and fire departments offered doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Ashley Seifert, 39, a pharmacist from Springfield, said she had wanted to get vaccinated for a while, but had been nervous about it. With the recent swell in COVID-19 cases in southwest Missouri, she decided it was time.

Stacy Gambill, of Battlefield, Missouri, was vaccinated earlier this year, but on Saturday she brought her 13-year-old — the only one of her four children who is old enough — to get vaccinated at the market. She said the family debated the issue, but their minds were made up by the anticipation of school resuming in the fall, and the recent upswing here in COVID-19 cases.

“I saw that it was getting really bad,” Gambill said.

Indeed, the situation has grown so bad that for the past week, Missouri has led the nation in daily cases per capita. The state’s seven-day average of new confirmed cases has more than doubled since the beginning of the month, up to 560 on Sunday from 250 on June 1, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis. The Joplin, Springfield, and Branson areas have all seen increases.

Health officials believe the Delta variant of COVID-19 has played a part in southwest Missouri’s recent surge. First identified in India late last year, the variant is estimated to be 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, first identified in the United Kingdom. Hospitals in Springfield are treating growing numbers of virus patients, many of them younger than before and the vast majority of them unvaccinated.

With public health restrictions largely gone, and crowded summer events looming, health departments and hospitals are trying to prepare for what comes next.

The day before the farmers market, nurses from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department vaccinated visitors at the Discovery Center, a science center a few blocks from Springfield’s main square. Each dose came with a free admission.

Robert A. Gettman, 66, a retiree, rolled up his sleeve. He said he’d worried early on about the possibility of having a negative reaction to the vaccines. But he saw the news about the Delta variant, and the Friday clinic wasn’t far from his home.

About a half hour after the event started, he was one of just four people who had been vaccinated.

Jan Atwell, a temporary community nurse with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, was staffing the clinic. Atwell said she and other health care workers are trying to make the vaccines as convenient as possible, and to make themselves available to talk about any concerns people have.

“It’s not a hard sell at all, it’s just, ‘we’re here,'” Atwell said.

Some residents are heeding the message. Statewide data shows Greene County vaccinated 3,246 people in the week ending on Sunday. Only St. Louis and St. Charles counties, plus the Kansas City area topped that. At vaccination clinics in Springfield, many attendees said the news of increased spread, and presence of a more infectious variant in the region helped motivate them to get vaccinated.

But as of Friday, Greene County’s rate of fully vaccinated residents had still barely surpassed 33%, and 37% of residents had received at least one dose.

Missouri’s first known case of COVID-19 was identified March 7, 2020, in St. Louis County. Days later, state and local officials announced Missouri’s second known case: A Greene County resident who had recently traveled to Austria.

Over the next few months, the county managed relatively low case rates, said Katie Towns, acting director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. But late last summer, the virus took hold. Cases peaked over winter, hitting a seven-day average of 255 in January.