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Delta Variant Drives New Cases, Hospitalizations In Southwest Missouri

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Delta variant of the coronavirus now makes up about 10% of new cases in the U.S. The variant, which was first identified in India, is more contagious and possibly more dangerous, and it's helping to drive up cases and hospitalizations in southwest Missouri, where vaccination rates are low. Steve Edwards is the president and CEO of CoxHealth, a health care system in southwest Missouri. And he joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEVE EDWARDS: Thank you, Ari. Glad to be on the show.

SHAPIRO: What are you seeing in your hospitals right now?

EDWARDS: We've seen our census grow by fivefold in the last month.

SHAPIRO: Fivefold.

EDWARDS: Yeah, dramatic increase, much more dramatic than when we saw the first, you know, big push in last fall and winter - so dramatic increase in patients. They're younger, and they're sicker, and they're coming in later, and there's less we can do for them if they come in later.

SHAPIRO: And can you tell how much of this is attributable to the Delta variant?

EDWARDS: You know, we're not certain because we're not able to do genomic sequencing of our patients in house. But in our local health department, Greene County Health Department, their sequencing shows 90% of all new cases are the Delta variant. So we assume that's the same likely scenario.

SHAPIRO: What's your hospital doing to prepare for these growing numbers?

EDWARDS: The bigger challenge we have is, in the fall, we had as many as 280 traveling nurses supporting our nursing staff, and we don't have travelers now, and travelers are even harder to come by. Plus, the challenge that we have - a lot of pent-up demand, a lot of patients who have grown more acute. So our hospital's actually more full than it was in the peak of the winter.

SHAPIRO: You know, these stories are familiar from a time when vaccines were not available. How does it feel to be going through this when the coronavirus is, at this point, a preventable disease in the U.S.?

EDWARDS: I mean, there's a cultural shift in our staff right now. There was this great sense of teamwork and working together in the winter and fall, and now because of the - they know that everyone - every single case we have in the hospital is not vaccinated, they - our staff's exasperated, exasperated by the politics. They're exasperated by Facebook. They're exasperated by the misinformation. They're exasperated by lies. They're frustrated because they know that while we're taking care of all these patients, we have other patients that also need care, and they couldn't be prevented with a vaccine, where these could.

SHAPIRO: About 38% of people in Missouri are fully vaccinated, relative to 45% nationwide. What's holding back vaccinations in the state?

EDWARDS: I think when we look at the data on hesitancy, it's red versus blue. It is rural versus urban. We have challenges with evangelical faith that have greater hesitancy, and that really describes southwest Missouri. It's a rural conservative area with a strong evangelical faith element, and that tends to be what's driving low vaccination rates.

SHAPIRO: Have you had any conversations with sick patients who chose not to get the vaccine? Like, what do they say when they're coming to you in dire straits?

EDWARDS: Most of them have regret they didn't take it seriously. Yeah, some of them still come across like this isn't real. They don't believe us. They don't believe they have COVID. And so that's even more mystifying to us. But generally, it's a great sense of regret.

SHAPIRO: There are other parts of the country with similarly low vaccination rates. Given what you're seeing in southwest Missouri, what's your forecast for other areas where people just haven't gotten vaccinated in large numbers?

EDWARDS: You know, the Delta variant is coming. We had the benefit of living in the Midwest while we saw the first waves hit the coast, which gave us more time. I think we're going to be a harbinger for the rest of the country. It's happening here. There's no reason to believe the pattern of this disease will change and that it won't grow in other areas. This Delta variant came from nowhere. You know, five weeks ago, I think we were less than 10%; now we're 90% - probably 90% up. So I anticipate that the greater part of the South, the greater part of the Midwest and those areas with low vaccination rates are going to see a wave of patients similar to what they saw last fall and last winter.

SHAPIRO: That's Steve Edwards, president and CEO of the CoxHealth hospital system in Missouri. Thank you for talking with us.

EDWARDS: Thank you, Ari. Appreciate the call. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.