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Delta Coronavirus Variant, Once Confined To Southwest Missouri, Spreads Across State

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio

Infectious disease experts say the COVID-19 disease is again a serious threat for many parts of Missouri as the virus spreads and unvaccinated people are being admitted to the state’s hospitals.

Missouri now has the second-highest rate of new coronavirus cases in the country. State officials say many are due to the delta variant, which is easier to spread and catch.

While the coronavirus outbreaks have largely been concentrated in southern Missouri, epidemiologists from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services say the number of cases is now rising in other parts of the state, including the St. Louis region. Rural counties with low vaccination rates also are at risk of large outbreaks.

“Unfortunately, Missouri turned out to be among those several states that do have those vulnerable spots,” said Dr. George Turabelidze, state epidemiologist at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “Those are spots where people are under-vaccinated, where people have low natural immunity levels and [where] some communities assumed the pandemic was already behind us.”

Nearly 1,600 new positive cases were reported in Missouri last week, the highest number since early February. The delta variant, which is more transmissible than earlier versions of the coronavirus, made up nearly 72% of viral lineages in the four-state region that includes Missouri, according to federal data. That was far higher than in any other state for which CDC data was available.

Case data and sewer surveillance has shown infections are moving from rural and small-town Missouri to more suburban areas, Turabelidze said. In the St. Louis metropolitan area, the number of new cases has risen more than 100% in the past two weeks.

“Because this is a highly transmissible infection and has a long incubation period of two weeks, we do not expect that things will turn around very quickly,” he said. “We expect a few more weeks of cases continuing to rise or stabilize at the higher level before things start improving.”

Places with low vaccination rates are at the highest risk for delta-fueled outbreaks, doctors said. If the virus makes gains there, there’s not much that will stop it.

That’s a big problem in many Missouri counties, where fewer than 20% of residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine, said Dr. Shephali Wulff, the system director of infectious disease at SSM Health.

In St. Louis, 34% of people have received the vaccine, and in St. Louis County, 43% have.

“If we have a low vaccination rate in a community, that's really where we're going to start to see a rise in these COVID variants,” Wulff said. “And that's where we're seeing variants like the delta variants — which we know is more contagious, more transmissible and causes higher viral loads — and people who are sick with COVID. That's going to be where we see these hyperlocal outbreaks happen.”

Hospitals across the state are preparing for a surge in patients, she said.

“We started to see an uptick in our percent positive tests,“ Wulff said. “And we know from last year that we typically start to see the uptick in positive tests first.”

Health workers in counties with low vaccination rates are worried the virus will soon take hold.

“A lot of the outbreak that is happening in the rest of southwest Missouri doesn't seem to be hitting us as hard now,” said Jennifer Roderman, a nurse in Dent County, in the central part of the state. “But it might hit us a little bit harder in the future.”

Roderman has seen a slight uptick in people interested in the vaccine as news of the variant spreads across the state.

Meanwhile, the state health department is preparing for the arrival of more workers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The White House recently announced the federal government is planning to deploy teams of health workers to help in regions with large outbreaks, including in Missouri.

Two epidemiologists from the CDC are currently at work in southern Missouri tracking breakthrough cases and studying vaccine hesitancy, officials said.

Nearly 40% of Missourians have been fully vaccinated against the virus. Missouri is spending $5 million on a campaign to persuade people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Missourians are a skeptical people,” said Adam Crumbliss, director of the health department’s Division of Community and Public Health, “and we really have to really demonstrate with data and convincing arguments, facts and most importantly logic to help move people into action.”

Gov. Mike Parson earlier this month said the state could soon offer people incentives to get vaccinated.

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Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.