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The delta variant thrives in a state of political and public health discord

Lauren Weber, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

ST. LOUIS — The day after Missouri Gov. Mike Parson finished his bicentennial bus tour to drum up tourism to the state in mid-July, Chicago issued a travel advisory warning about visiting Missouri.

Earlier this summer, as COVID-19 case counts began to tick up when the highly transmissible delta variant took hold in the state, the Republican-majority legislature successfully enacted laws limiting public health powers and absolving businesses from COVID-19 legal exposure.

Until Wednesday, the state health officer post sat vacant for nearly three months — leaving Missouri without a permanent leader as the COVID-19 numbers grew. And Brian Steele, a mayor in the Springfield area, which is at the epicenter of swelling cases, faces a recall vote for his masking mandate that ended in April.

Hospitals in southwestern Missouri are overflowing. As of July 19, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show Missouri is worst in the nation for COVID-19 case rates over the past week, and in the bottom 15 states for vaccinations against the potentially deadly virus. Though cases are not even half of what they were during the winter spike, they continue to rise rapidly, sending a warning to other states with low vaccination rates about the havoc the coronavirus’s delta variant can bring.

Divisions abound in Missouri, where vaccines are widely available, but only 40% of the state has been vaccinated. Public health mitigation measures to reel in the rising case counts would be wildly unpopular in a state that never had a statewide mask mandate. And the more the virus circulates, the higher chance it could mutate further into something more transmissible or deadly, even for those already vaccinated.

Escalating political backlash to public health efforts has the state staring down the barrel of potential incoming disaster, said Kelley Vollmar, executive director of the Jefferson County Health Department.

 

"Missouri is the Show Me State,” Vollmar said, as the state has made headlines for its surging cases among its many unvaccinated residents. “I just wish we could do it for the right reasons.”

Kelli Jones, a spokesperson for the governor, said the national media spotlight on Missouri is misdirected. Flare-ups where vaccination rates are low are to be expected, she said, adding that hospitals in those areas may be strained, but that’s partly because a backlog of elective procedures are being performed during this iteration of the pandemic.

“When the national media catches on stuff, they don’t have all the full facts of all the details,” she said.

Jones and Lisa Cox, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, both pointed to a $5 million multimedia campaign aimed at encouraging vaccinations. They have been heartened to see an increase in vaccine orders from vaccinators — this past week, it was more than triple the usual demand, Cox said.

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