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Missouri Covid-19: A couple says they dragged their feet getting the vaccine. Then they got sick

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An ambulance had rushed her to an emergency room one day, with breathing problems; he was admitted the following night.

“Maybe you won’t make it through the night,” she recalls being told by a doctor.

Michael remembers the doctor asking him about possible intubation: “Do you want us to fight for you? Do you want us to do everything we can to save your life?”

Bunch, who is now recovering at home, says she felt helpless. “You have no control.”

Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise again in southwestern Missouri, with the federal government going federal deploying a Covid-19 peak team to support public health.

The state health department estimates that more than 70 percent of the virus in the state is the more contagious — possibly more dangerous — Delta strain.

That variant, first identified in India, responsible for 51.7% of all new Covid-19 infections in the country over the two weeks ending Saturday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an estimate.

In the past week, the number of Covid-19 cases in Missouri was the second highest in the country, with 15.5 new cases per 100,000 people per day, or 108 cases per 100,000 people for seven days, according to Data from Johns Hopkins University. Arkansas had the highest rate with 15.7 new cases per 100,000 people per day, the data showed.

At Springfield’s Mercy Hospital, the rapid spike in hospital admissions caused administrators to rush to borrow ventilators from other hospitals. In the city’s CoxHealth hospital system, 90 percent of coronavirus patients had the Delta variant.

“We have seen a massive increase in the number of Covid patients in our emergency department in recent weeks,” said Dr. Howard Jarvis, medical director of CoxHealth’s emergency department.

He added: “We will get worse in the coming weeks. People are definitely doing a lot more things. I think there are a lot of people who are less concerned about the virus. Now we don’t have a very high percentage in this area of people who have been vaccinated.”

Breeding grounds for more deadly Covid-19 variants

Missouri is not alone.

More than 9 million people live in 173 U.S. counties with Covid-19 cases of or more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days and with vaccination rates below 40%, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC. Thursday at a White House briefing.

More than 90% of those counties also have a vaccination rate of less than 40%, according to Walensky.

“Many of these counties are also the same locations where the Delta variant represents the vast majority of the circulating virus,” Walensky said.

“Low vaccination rates in these provinces, coupled with high cases — and lax mitigation policies that fail to protect those unvaccinated from disease — will certainly, and unfortunately, lead to more unnecessary suffering, hospitalizations and possible deaths.”

In fact, a new data analysis has identified clusters of unvaccinated people, most in the southern United States, who are vulnerable to spikes in Covid-19 cases and could become breeding grounds for even more deadly strains.

The analysis by Georgetown University researchers identified 30 clusters of counties with low vaccination rates and significant population sizes. The five main clusters cover large parts of the Southeastern US and a smaller part in the Midwest. The clusters are largely located in parts of eight states – from Georgia to Texas and southern Missouri.

About a third of Americans have not received a Covid-19 injection.

Approximately 39% of Greene County residents are fully vaccinated

Katie Towns, acting director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, said the county — a population of about 300,000 — had 240 cases of Covid-19 on Wednesday and 17 deaths in the past two weeks. About 39% of residents are fully vaccinated, according to health department website.

“We’re not a huge community,” she said of the 240 cases. “That’s a very large number and we haven’t seen these numbers since we had an increase in December and January.”

About 56% of adults in Missouri have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, according to CDC data, and 39.4% of residents are fully vaccinated.

In Taney County, where the southwestern Ozark city of Branson is a major draw, about 25% of the approximately 56,000 residents are vaccinated.

“It runs the gamut,” Lisa Marshall, director of the Taney County Health Department, said of hesitation to use the vaccine. “Maybe they just want to wait and see if… it’s not quite ready yet. Maybe they’re just not one to vaccinate. We’ve also heard a little bit of concern about how quickly the vaccine has been developed.”

Overall, data shows that Covid-19 is expected to increase in less vaccinated communities, especially as the Delta variant continues to spread in those areas.

A federal team is being deployed in Missouri that includes an epidemiologist, research assistants, a health communications specialist, contact tracers and others who will assist with vaccination and outreach, the health department said. The teams include members of CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency

“We have a CDC representative helping us with … researching the (Delta) variant and its presence here in our community,” Towns said. “But we only have one representative now. We are happy to accept the extra funds.’

In the 500-bed CoxHealth hospital system, Jarvis said nearly all new Covid-19 admissions were unvaccinated younger patients.

“This will continue to happen,” he said of the latest increase in the number of cases. “It can peak here and then it will spread to other places. If we don’t get enough vaccinated, there will be another variant that’s probably worse. That’s just how viruses work.”

Couple, sick with Covid-19, hold hands in the ICU

In Rogersville, Louie Michael said he and his wife Pattie Bunch, a nurse, have been “dragging our feet” about getting a Covid-19 vaccine since the spring. In mid-June Bunch became ill.

“It felt like a bomb fell on me,” said Bunch, who is still recovering less than a month later. “I just didn’t feel right at all. And I thought, ‘Oh no.’”

An ambulance took her to hospital on June 17 with respiratory problems. The next night, Michael, an entertainer, had to be rushed to the same emergency room in Springfield. A nurse eventually placed them in the same ICU room, where Michael took a snapshot of them holding hands.

“We didn’t know how it would end,” says Michael, who, along with Bunch, urges people to get vaccinated. “We didn’t know if we were going to go back home.”

“Or see our kids again, or our family or grandson,” she said.

“It could have just ended that night,” said Michael, who has been with Bunch for 30 years. “It drove me crazy. I didn’t want it to end like this. It’s not supposed to end like this… and unfortunately for a lot of people it ends that way.”

Virginia Langmaid, Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield of CNN contributed to this report.

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