COVID testing site

More than 70 people waited in chilly temperatures Wednesday in Columbia for a COVID-19 test.

Missouri reported more cases of COVID-19 in the first 12 days of January than during any full month of the pandemic so far.

As a result of the massive spike of infections tied to the omicron variant, hospitalizations are also at record levels, and schools in many communities are shutting their doors.

And the state is likely not near the peak of cases.

“What I can say is that the case rates where omicron hit first, like New York and New Jersey, are still more than two times the rate we are seeing in Missouri, and they haven’t leveled off yet,” said Marc Johnson, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at MU.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Senior Services reported 13,135 additional coronavirus infections, bringing the total reported since Jan. 1 to 128,949 — 2,828 more than the previous record set in November 2020, before vaccines were available.

Record hospitalizations accompany the avalanche of cases. There were 3,401 people being treated as inpatients, preliminary data for Monday shows, equal to 119% of the highest number seen prior to the arrival of the omicron variant.

As a result, hospitals are putting off non-emergency care and struggling to maintain staffing to care for the additional burden.

“Unlike when we were in the delta surge and Missouri was a bit of an outlier, we are not seeing staffing through agencies rushing to Missouri,” said Dave Dillon, spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association.

And several school districts have called a halt to in-person instruction for the remainder of the week, seeking to use the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday to buy time for cases to subside.

The latest district to call off classes for a few days is Webb City in southwest Missouri. The district made the decision a day after posting a report to its Facebook page that it had 806 students out sick along with 50 staff members. The district has about 4,400 students enrolled.

“Due to the continued increase in student and staff illness across the district, Webb City R7 Schools will be closed Thursday, Jan. 13, and Friday, Jan. 14, to deep clean buildings and give everyone time to recover,” the Wednesday post stated.

The first evidence of the omicron variant in Missouri was found in a patient in early December. At the time, the state health department was reporting about 2,600 new infections daily. As of Wednesday, the seven-day average of reported cases was 11,625 per day, and the climb is expected to continue.

Omicron, which is far more transmissible than earlier variants, is becoming the dominant strain in viral fragments found in wastewater samples taken during the first week of the month, said Johnson, who analyzes wastewater samples for the state health department.

The samples taken during the week of Jan. 3 showed omicron was the only variant detected in 11 locations and was present alongside the delta variant in all other locations tested.

“The average for the state was 75% omicron,” Johnson said.

The situation

Schools struggling

With schools emphasizing in-person instruction and state rules that strictly limit the amount of time students can engage in remote coursework, keeping the doors open and classrooms fully staffed is a struggle.

That task wasn’t made any easier when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) notified school districts last week that it had no more rapid-result antigen tests for schools. The state’s supplier, Abbott Labs, has not sent any tests for the past two weeks, the department’s weekly COVID-19 update stated.

In addition, the department stated it would not accept new applications for the free tests, until adequate supplies are available.

Tests currently in inventory should be reserved for people who have symptoms, the department stated.

“We know what a challenge this unfortunate situation is going to create for the hundreds of schools across the state that are taking part in our K-12 Antigen Testing Program and we want to express our sincere apologies,” the update reported.

Staffing is critical, and a report presented Tuesday to the State Board of Education stated that many districts are able to fill only about half their daily vacancies.

“Right now you are seeing schools that are doing everything they can within their power and trying to be incredibly creative in the way they appropriate staff to school buildings,” Mallory McGowin, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an interview.

Schools are required by state law to provide 1,044 hours of instruction time each year. State rules allow 36 of those hours to be provided by alternate means, such as online classes, said Mallory McGowin, spokesperson for DESE.

“There is a whole host of reasons why keeping school doors open for as long as possible is best,” McGowin said. “Right now, the spread of COVID is not happening because schools are open. If we close school buildings, we are not going to see any less transmission because students would be interacting in other settings.”

The state has relaxed the rules on who can qualify as a substitute teacher, requiring 20 hours of online instruction, plus background checks, for anyone who has at least 60 hours of post-secondary education.

Districts also need bus drivers and other support personnel to stay open, McGowin said. Sedalia schools in Pettis County closed for a day last week because there were not enough drivers to bring students to class, she said.

There is a cluster of districts in southwest Missouri that are taking one or more days off this week along with Webb City. Those districts include Carthage and Neosho, the Joplin Globe reported.

When students stay home, it often means someone in the household must miss work to care for them, McGowin noted.

“There is a trickle-down effect in a community when a school cannot keep its doors open,” she said. “We have some real critical workforce shortages and a need for people to be present.”

Hospitals filling

University Hospital in Columbia reported Wednesday it had 90 inpatients, including 33 who were vaccinated, down from 98 on Tuesday, which was just below the peak of 102 in November 2020, said EricMaze, spokesperson for MU Health Care.

As a result, the hospital is postponing non-emergency surgeries and planned hospital admissions for the remainder of the week.

“We are kind of reviewing each day on a case-by-case basis,” Maze said.

The latest confirmed data, from Sunday, shows 22% of hospital beds statewide are open, but that remaining capacity is not spread evenly. Only 18% of beds remain available in northwest Missouri, while 37% are open in southeast Missouri.

When Gov. Mike Parson allowed the state’s emergency declaration, intended to support health care staffing, to expire Dec. 31, hospitals scrambled to get waivers to use unlicensed space and bring in staff who hold licenses from other states.

The state health department responded quickly to those requests, Dillon said, but some professions, such as physicians, are not covered by the waivers.

“Our challenge right now is that we are having this surge happening and our staff are beginning to get caught up in the illness itself,” Dillon said. “A not irrelevant percentage of staff is calling in sick.”

When Ruth, who was a state representative before she was tapped by Parson to be child advocate, posted that she was waiting for a bed, she was experiencing what many Missourians are finding when they seek care, Dillon said.

“That is what is happening right now,” he said. “We have such a staffing and bed crisis right now that hospital emergency departments are serving as holding spaces.”

This was first published in The Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics and policy and is reprinted with permission.

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