By Tessa Weinberg
As federal officials land in Missouri at the request of the state to assist with combatting a wave of new COVID cases spurred by the Delta variant, Gov. Mike Parson publicly rebuffed outreach strategies President Joe Biden touted.
On Tuesday, a member of the newly-created federal surge response team arrived in the Springfield area to provide epidemiological support, Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services confirmed Wednesday.
The Springfield area has seen an eruption of new COVID cases and hospitalizations, driven by the Delta variant’s spread. Greene County went from 774 cases in May to 2,524 recorded cases in June, according to state data.
The teams were announced last week by the White House, with Missouri requesting aid. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman directed questions to the White House, and a spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday confirming the team’s arrival in Missouri.
Meanwhile as the state receives federal aid, Parson took to social media Wednesday to oppose the president’s renewed commitment that his administration would send people door-to-door in an effort to boost vaccination rates across the country.
“I have directed our health department to tell the federal government that sending government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination would NOT be an effective OR welcome strategy in Missouri,” Parson wrote in a Facebook post.
Parson has repeatedly stressed the availability of vaccines across the state and noted he and his wife have both received them. But he has often touted a mantra of personal responsibility when it comes to whether residents should take a shot.
Missouri ranks 40th of the 50 states and District of Columbia in vaccine delivery per capita, according to the CDC. Statewide nearly 45 percent of residents have received at least one dose, with some counties with local rates as high as 54 percent while others remain under 20 percent.
During a press briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a federal surge response team was already deployed to Colorado to collaborate with a local health department and is in touch with a range of officials across the country.
When asked whether federal officials or local communities initiate the aid, Psaki said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deploy the teams and work with local officials.
“We can see vaccination rates and where there are rising caseloads, and then work in a collaborative way with the communities to deploy the teams,” Psaki said.
Additional team members, both remote and in-person, will be added in the coming weeks to help with data, research, vaccine uptake strategies and outreach in Missouri, Cox said.
“We can continue to provide updates as more information regarding surge team support is received from the CDC,” Cox said, “but we are looking forward to collaborating with them and learning more about how the Delta variant is impacting Missouri, specifically southwest Missouri initially.”
Missouri continues to be one of the top states adding the most new COVID cases per capita, and was only second to Arkansas as of Thursday morning, according to a The New York Times analysis of states’ data.
On Wednesday, the state added 1,663 cases identified through both PCR and antigen tests — the highest daily count since Feb. 5. Hospitalizations statewide were up more than 40 percent in June, and at 994 as of Sunday.
Health officials believe the rapid rise in new cases has been driven largely by the Delta variant’s spread coupled with low vaccination rates. First detected in rural corners of the state, the variant that was first reported in India has now firmly taken hold in Missouri and has been found in wastewater in the state’s largest metros.
Experts predict that with its rise, cases could double or triple in the next few weeks.
It’s also contributed to a rapid deterioration of the state’s healthcare infrastructure that is reminiscent of the worst peaks Missouri saw last fall.
Hospital leaders in southwest Missouri issued urgent pleas on social media asking for respiratory therapists and traveling nurses to help come to their aid.
“Springfield, Mo is struggling with surging Covid volumes. Cox has plenty of ventilators, PPE, but our heroic RT staff need re-enforcements,” CoxHealth President and CEO Steve Edwards wrote Tuesday, later adding: “We would be so grateful.”
By Thursday over 40 had reached out in response, he tweeted.
With 116 COVID-positive patients on July 4, it was another “new day, new record,” for Mercy Springfield Communities. Just two days later they would surpass it and reach 122.
“Spent the night looking for ventilators because we ran out,” Erik Frederick, the chief administrative officer for Mercy Springfield Communities tweeted Sunday. “47 patients on vents. A lot of those are COVID but not all.”
While hospitals pull intensive care unit nurses, respiratory therapists and additional equipment from other areas of the state, Parson told reporters Wednesday there should be no ventilator shortages and anybody saying so “is wrong.”
“The state has a stockpile of ventilators sitting over there,” Parson said. “So when somebody says we’re out of ventilators that’s more, I would say, a management problem than anything.”
Cases have prompted the Springfield school district to reinstate a mask mandate for summer school, while nearby Nixa Mayor Brian Steele is set to face a recall election in November over the issuance of mitigation measures like masks.
On Tuesday, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department reported 17 new COVID-related deaths. Of those deaths, none were fully vaccinated according to the state’s vaccine database, a department news release said. The last time that many COVID deaths were reported was January 27.
Katie Towns, the acting director of the health department, said the deaths should be extremely concerning and urged vaccinations. Parson has said the state is nearing an announcement of a vaccine incentive program, although he’s previously expressed doubts about its value.
Others are taking more forceful action. Mercy Springfield hospital officials announced Wednesday that all the hospital system’s employees would be required to be vaccinated by September 30. Failure to do so could result in a potential termination, Brent Hubbard, the president and chief operating officer of Mercy Hospitals Springfield, said Wednesday.
Hospital officials cited the Delta variant as a factor that spurred their decision, with the level of COVID positive inpatients already surpassing the peaks seen last December, Hubbard said during a news conference.
“We have a short window to act,” Hubbard said.