SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Frustrated health officials in the Springfield area are imploring residents to get COVID-19 vaccinations as the faster-spreading Delta variant pushes case numbers and hospitalizations higher.

Random testing of virus samples have determined that the Delta variant, which is more infectious and potentially more deadly than other variants, has become dominant around Springfield and in much of southwest Missouri, Kendra Findley, administrator of community health and epidemiology with Greene County, said Thursday.

Administrators at the two largest hospitals serving the state’s southwestern region — Mercy and CoxHealth — are pleading with residents to get vaccinated because COVID-19 patient loads are increasing at a rate they have not previously seen during the pandemic, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

In Greene County, 36% of the population has begun vaccination. In most surrounding counties the figure is below 30%.

Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield, said hospitalizations averaged in the teens a month ago but have increased until reaching 72 by Thursday. CoxHealth has seen similar numbers.

“Before, it took a few weeks or longer to ramp up like that,” Frederick said.

Many of the new patients are young, healthy adults and pregnant women, he said.

Finley said when the pandemic began, every person with the virus would infect about two people.

“With Delta, that estimation can be anywhere from five to eight. That is staggering,” she said.

Vaccinations are the most important tool against the variant, she said.

“It’s hard for this virus to move through a population if the population has some immunity against it,” she said. “Right now, we just don’t have that immunity, and it’s just burning through the population.”

The variant “has become prevalent” across the state, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said in a news release this week.

As of Thursday, Missouri ranked second among states with most new cases per capita in the past seven days. Data from Johns Hopkins University showed one in every 1,487 people in Missouri was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Statewide, just 37% of Missouri’s population have been fully vaccinated.

Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth, said the uptick in hospitalizations and cases could happen anywhere where vaccination rates are low.

“I think we need to be a harbinger for others,” Edwards said. “There is no reason to think what is happening in Springfield won’t happen across the country.”

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