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Fourth of July raises worries as vaccination efforts gear up

July 1, 2021 GMT

BRANSON, Mo. (AP) — Health officials working to boost lagging COVID-19 vaccination rates in Missouri are growing anxious as the Fourth of July weekend approaches, creating ripe conditions for the fast-spreading delta variant to send hospital numbers climbing.

“We are just kind of keeping an eye to see what is going to happen,” said Lisa Marshall, the health director for Taney County, which includes the tourist town of Branson. “We’ve seen that these numbers can jump pretty quickly.”

Missouri is second only to Nevada for having the worst diagnosis rate over the past week. State officials have requested aid from newly formed federal “surge response teams.” Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox didn’t immediately provide details, but the request shows the administration of Republican Gov. Mike Parson is trying to bolster the pandemic response.

The push comes as the state’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen over the past two weeks from 576.14 new cases per day on June 15 to 891.71 new cases per day on Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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State data shows that hospitalizations are up sharply, increasing by 38% from 637 on the last day of May to 882 on Wednesday. And the situation is even worse in southwest Missouri, where hospitalizations jumped from 134 to 317 over the same period.

“I think one of our team members put it best the other day when they said that they felt like they were holding their breath,” Marshall told The Kansas City Star.

Only one in four Taney County residents has been fully vaccinated. In much larger Greene County, which includes Springfield, one in three residents is fully vaccinated. Vaccine rates across southwest Missouri are considerably lower than the roughly 40% for the state as a whole.

With numbers even worse among young people, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page Page on Wednesday announced a “major sustained effort” that involves offering daily opportunities for families to get all their vaccines, routine physicals and dental care at any of the health department’s three clinics starting soon, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Health officials in the county shifted their guidance Thursday, encouraging vaccinated people to wear face coverings when indoors with others whose vaccination status is unknown.

“This pandemic is not over,” said Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. “The virus and its variants present a real and imminent danger to the health of people in the St. Louis region. We must encourage vaccination and continued precautions.”

Only one-third of county residents ages 12 to 19 have initiated the vaccination process, Page said.

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“That’s the lowest vaccination rate of all of our age groups,” he said. “With our overall case numbers going up, and the delta variant threatening our county, it’s critical we get young people vaccinated before school returns in August.”

While Page lamented the teen vaccination rate in the county, the rate in rural areas is even lower, according to a report released Wednesday by Deloitte Consulting, a firm hired by the state of Missouri.

In the state’s urban counties, 26.3% of children ages 12 to 17 have received a dose of vaccine, compared with just 6.9% in rural counties, the report found.

Cases among teens have played a key role in recent outbreaks. The surge in Missouri’s cases began in northern Linn and Livingston counties in late May, which Linn County Health Department director Krista Neblock partly blamed on area students from five high schools spending several hours together on senior trip bus rides to either Kansas City or St. Louis.

The following weekends brought high school graduation ceremonies and parties where many were experiencing symptoms but attended events anyway, Neblock said.

In St. Joseph Health, where immunization rates also are low and hospital numbers are on the rise, the health department announced that people can walk in during clinic hours to get the vaccine at one of its locations starting Thursday, the St. Joseph News-Press reports.

“I hope people are eager to get the vaccine and hopefully we can get these numbers back down because it’s unsettling when the numbers go back up for many of us who are watching the virus,” Health Director Debra Bradley said.