At a Wednesday press conference, healthcare leaders warned Greene County is far from its peak of omicron cases and doubled down on vaccination as the only way through the crisis — with one hospital leader saying the unvaccinated "kill" their neighbors by refusing to get a shot and stop spreading the virus.
"The data shows that the safest thing that you can do is get vaccinated. So if you say you care about your community, if you say you care about your neighbors, if you care about things beyond yourself, I would encourage you to please get vaccinated," said Mercy Springfield Communities President Craig McCoy at the Wednesday press conference. "Because until you (vaccinate), you have every bit as much ability to do harm and even kill those around you by spreading (the virus)."
McCoy's comments attempt to dispel the notion that the vaccinated and unvaccinated spread the virus at the same rate. While both have similar viral loads when infected, the vaccinated are less likely to be infected overall — making it more likely the unvaccinated spread the virus.
Research also shows that vaccination is the best way to prevent severe illness and death.
"The vaccine is highly successful at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death. Each time one of our hospital partners takes the time to review the charts of every patient admitted with COVID-19, they show us that the worst of this pandemic is impacting those who yet remain unvaccinated," said Springfield-Greene County Health Director Katie Towns at the press conference.
According to her, only 52 percent of eligible Greene County residents are vaccinated and 48 percent are fully boosted.
The escalation of rhetoric from local hospital leaders comes as omicron sweeps through Missouri without the surge's peak in sight.
"There's a lot of conflicting talk and remarks about how the omicron variant is mild and nothing to be concerned over. While I'm sure we all wish that was the case... that does not match the reality we are facing today," Towns said.
"I know we prefer our former reality where this virus was not present in our lives, did not take up space in our bodies and our minds, dominate our headlines, our thoughts, our decision making. But the reality is that it is still very much here and present with us and will continue to make us sick and take away the things that we love and the privileges that we enjoy."
Towns said the health department is no longer announcing when there is a new record high rate of infection because that record is being broken every day.
On Tuesday, Greene County reported 912 new infections of COVID-19, which brings the daily average of the past week up to 591 cases per day.
Cox is currently treating 174 hospitalized COVID patients and Mercy Springfield is treating 139. On Tuesday, 896 people tested positive through Cox, which compares to a 183 test positivity high during the summer Delta surge.
Since the beginning of the year, the two hospital systems have seen 88 COVID-related deaths.
And Towns warned that Greene County has not yet reached its peak of infections of the omicron variant, which she had previously predicted might come sometime this week. Now, she predicts that peak might not come for several more weeks.
Other places across the globe have seen a sharp and rapid decline in COVID cases following their peak. Edwards said that was less likely in Greene County because of the area's low rate of vaccination.
"We would like to see this precipitous drop. But most of the data where there's a precipitous drop are areas much more highly vaccinated," Edwards said.
For the family members of those who have died, Edwards said there could be "no consolation" in a suggestion omicron is mild.
Quarantining staff in hospitals and school system
While combating the unprecedented numbers of patients, Cox and Mercy have had to sideline an unprecedented number of their staff that is COVID-positive.
Cox currently has 500 of their 12,500 out sick, which caused the hospital to pause routine care last week to focus on severe illness. In comparison, Mercy has 329 workers in quarantine. Edwards said the numbers of sick staff members might increase over the next week from four percent to up to 10 percent.
"That's where St. Louis and Kansas City have been. And we're about a week behind them," he said.
To mitigate this loss of their workforce, Cox reassigned 468 of their staff members outside their normal jobs to "support clinical areas."
"These are engineers who are moving equipment, moving patients, are emptying trash cans, working overnight shifts, and doing everything they can to rally support for our clinical teams who are tired and are stretched," Edwards said.
In addition, Cox is hiring college and high school age support staff for these support positions. So far, 250 have applied and 25 have started working.
Unlike the summer delta surge, Springfield does not have access to out-of-state physicians who "saved the day" when the hospitals previously strained.
Last week, Edwards called on Governor Mike Parson to reinstate a state of emergency, which would allow those out-of-state hospital workers to help.
But he added there's "not a lot of hope, and not a lot of help" from state government right now.
Quarantine staff shortages are also evident in Springfield Public Schools, which were forced to close the rest of this week because of that issue along with low attendance rates.
"The last thing a superintendent wants to do is to close our schools," said SPS superintendent Grenita Lathan. "Unfortunately yesterday we had 200 students test positive and another 100 staff members to test positive in one day. This strain has created staffing challenges and made it difficult for us to even recruit substitutes to address staffing."
Last week, SPS schools saw 863 cases of COVID-19, impacting 661 students and 202 staff.
Lathan said she hopes to return to in-person classes on Monday, but that decision had yet to be made.
"All of our facilities are going through a deep cleaning right now just to make sure that we are prepared in the event that we're able to reopen on Monday."
Lathan also noted the school district was unable to immediately transition to virtual learning because their staff is "not well enough to even teach virtually during this spread."
According to Towns, area residents should take the utmost precautions to prevent their infection to prevent "the impact this is having on our community's children."
"I know that we're all exhausted and ready to be finished with COVID-19. But pretending that everything is back to normal doesn't make it so. we must all do what we can to take precautions and slow the surge," Towns said.
Given the high transmissibility of the omicron variant, the CDC now recommends the use of surgical or other higher-grade masks instead of cloth ones.
To meet that need, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department began offering free surgical masks at Springfield-area libraries. In that one day, the masks provided ran out in at least the Library Center in south Springfield.
Free surgical masks running out?
Towns confirmed that branch ran out of free masks Wednesday morning but said more masks would be delivered later Wednesday.
"They did run out. And the good news is that we have more masks to distribute. And so we will be providing another 15,000 masks to the libraries today, and also distributing to libraries throughout the county. So people would be able to continue to access those masks through those same locations," she said.
Members of the public can receive free surgical masks at Springfield-Greene County Library branches in Springfield. This includes:
The Library Center, 4653 S Campbell Ave.
The Library Station, 235 N. Kansas Expy.
Midtown Carnegie, 397 E. Central St.
Park Central, 128 Park Central Sq.
Schweitzer Brentwood, 2214 Brentwood Blvd
Each family can receive up to 50 surgical masks at these locations. They will also receive a COVID-19 care kit including information on COVID-19 prevention, a digital thermometer, tissues, and hand sanitizer.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Why Greene County is far from peak of omicron COVID-19 surge