Jun. 23—Vaccinations and a return to observing precautions are needed to stem the Joplin area's rise in COVID-19 rates, health officials said Tuesday.
Missouri this week has landed again on national COVID-19 rankings as a hot spot.
While Joplin city officials had recently ended the use of restrictions in the city of Joplin's Response and Recovery Plan for COVID-19, Mayor Ryan Stanley on Monday night left the question open on whether the council might consider reinstituting any provisions of the plan.
Dr. Rob McNab, the head of Freeman Health System's COVID-19 unit, said Tuesday that previous low hospitalization rates had given way the last few days to a census of 48 COVID-19 patients.
"It had been running 10, 11, 12, and before that we had shut down all the COVID units. Now we're back up to the mid-to-high 40s. That's a high-water mark for us" since the hospital had 60 inpatients during a fall and winter surge. "Forty-eight is alarmingly high," he said.
Donna Stokes, Mercy infection prevention specialist, said Monday that Mercy has experienced an increase in COVID-19 patients over the past two weeks. Mercy's COVID-19 unit can house approximately 26 beds, which can overflow into other units as needed. There were 23 patients, eight in critical care, as of Friday.
Springfield health officials said last week they were seeing large numbers of cases and hospitalizations prodded by the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.
McNab said that variant is in Joplin too, but it's not what's behind the current caseload. It could be, though, within weeks.
The delta variant has been seen in about 6% of Freeman cases. "We know it is two or three times more contagious. In the next few weeks, it will ramp up and up until it's the dominant player," McNab said.
That is a situation that could put the hospital back into caring for a higher number of COVID-19 patients with no place nearby to transfer any of them when Freeman has too many. McNab said Springfield hospitals already have signaled they do not have room to take more patients. Previously, the closest place Joplin patients could be sent was Texas.
The current spread of the infection is being fed by a combination of factors, McNab said.
"The people we are seeing in the hospital are not those who are vaccinated," the doctor said. "I really would strongly encourage people to pursue those vaccinations."
McNab does not expect to see a decline in the cases until vaccination rates increase and people return to being cautious.
"Right now, Missouri in general is 38% vaccinated. For us to have any real measure of protection, we need to reach that 70 to 80% mark to be able to count on herd immunity to protect us," McNab said.
In addition to vaccines, he recommends frequent hand-washing, staying home if sick, social distancing and other precautions.
"Should we go back to masking?" he asked. "I never quit. This virus is obviously still here, and we're not vaccinated enough that relaxing our guard is going to be safe or effective. When we start relaxing our guard, then we are not safe."
For those who are reluctant or hesitant to get a vaccine, McNab said that 96% of physicians are fully vaccinated, according to the American Medical Association.
"If there were things to be concerned about, that would probably be the group that would know that," he said.
City Manager Nick Edwards told the City Council on Monday that nationwide, there's been a 6% decrease in cases over the past two weeks. However, that is not the case in Missouri, he said. Growing cases in Southwest Missouri and the Ozarks, as well as some northern and central counties, have put Missouri back on the national map as a COVID-19 hot spot.
"It certainly is a problem," Edwards said. "It continues to be a problem. I think we are seeing some pretty significant numbers from COVID-19 and the many variants."
Mayor Pro Tem Keenan Cortez said there were comments from residents at the meeting "that now that we are on the other side of the pandemic or now that the pandemic is over. and I don't think we are anywhere near the end of the pandemic. I think we're still in the middle of it, I think we're still getting people who are sick while all the time we're trying to vaccinate a certain percentage of the population.
"I think it is only smart of every citizen in Joplin to do everything they can to protect themselves. If you are fully vaccinated, guidelines say that we can go about and do the things we want to do in this life, but just take a little caution. Our cases are up in Joplin. Our hospitalizations are up in Joplin. Be a little extra cautious."
Among three Joplin hospitals there were 80 COVID-19 patients on Monday, the mayor said Monday night.
"That's the highest number we've seen probably going back to November or December," Stanley said. "Some of those are not coming out of there. So to say that this is over, to act like this is over, to act like we are out of the woods, I think we have to pay close attention to that number specifically.
"I don't know how many are vaccinated and are still getting it or how many are not vaccinated — I don't know the metrics on that — but as citizens we all have to ask how we can better prepare ourselves and protect those around us. So I would just say do not let your guard down."
Stanley said he was not ready to take any official action.
"But at the same time I would not be surprised to see that number climb, and then we have to ask ourselves questions about whether we should."
In a statement released by a Mercy Hospital spokesman, officials said that "Mercy would welcome and support any efforts by the City Council and members of the community at large to help us push back against this recent spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations. We have seen a significant increase recently, and a huge majority of the patients we're seeing have not been vaccinated. We are approaching a point where resources, staff and bed capacity are a concern."