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Southwest Missouri Faces COVID-19 Surge

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, Independence Day.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.

FADEL: That's President Biden looking forward to the holiday in his first prime-time presidential address in March. That's when he envisioned tomorrow as the time when Americans could gather again.

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BIDEN: In your backyard or in your neighborhood, and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day. That doesn't mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together.

FADEL: And that's coming to pass, even though the country is about 3 percentage points shy of the vaccine benchmark Biden wanted to hit by tomorrow - at least one shot in 70% of all adults - and vaccine rates are varying state to state. Vermont leads this weekend at over 85%. Just making Biden's goal at 70% are Minnesota and his own Delaware. At the very bottom of the list is Mississippi, with just over 46%.

Missouri is another state that's lagging. Just 56% of the adults there have started the vaccination process, and the southwestern part of the state is a COVID hot spot right now. In the last two weeks, new cases have increased 44%, fueled by the delta variant. Some hospitals are seeing the same numbers of patients now as they did last winter at the height of the pandemic.

Erik Frederick is chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Mo., and he joins me now. Welcome.

ERIK FREDERICK: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

FADEL: What's it like right now in the ICU? I'm curious just how full it is and what kind of patients you're seeing.

FREDERICK: It's full.

FADEL: Wow.

FREDERICK: We have a dedicated ICU unit just for COVID patients. We have 20 of the 21 beds full, and I believe 13 of those patients are on the vent. So it looks very much like it looked last year, exception being we do have younger patients in the ICU than what we saw last year.

FADEL: You have younger patients this time around?

FREDERICK: We do, that's correct. So last year, you know, typically what we saw were patients probably in their mid-50s and up with multiple other complicating factors, other health issues. But what we see now are younger, otherwise healthy patients that are just in the ICU. And, yes, it's the delta variant that's making them sicker.

FADEL: So what's morale like, then, for the doctors, nurses and staff? The country is opening up. You're seeing people out and about again. I'm just curious if it feels lonely as you deal with being a COVID hot spot in this moment.

FREDERICK: I will tell you, I feel pretty lonely. Yes, I think that would be a sentiment you'd hear from a lot of people working in health care right now. You feel like you're kind of beating your head on that proverbial brick wall trying to tell people, understand what we're seeing. This is real. It's right here in front of us.

And, you know, my wife is a nurse. We work in health care for a very long time. And now we have to look at our kids and say, man, you know what? We're nervous about sending you to youth night at church, or, you know, we're being very careful about having large indoor gatherings and where we're going, and we've really scaled back again to where our weekends are largely at home now.

The masking, the distancing has sort of gone away, but in our part of the country, there's been very low adoption of the vaccine. And so we say, you know, from our perspective, and I know in speaking with some of our co-workers, it's just that frustration. It's here we go again.

FADEL: Yeah.

FREDERICK: And there's something that you can do that's easy, free and accessible to help stop this, and we're not seeing that get traction in our community.

FADEL: What are people saying about why they're not going and getting this vaccine?

FREDERICK: You know, it's sort of a combination of lack of knowledge, fear, and then some people that just - we know it has been politicized. And they just say, you know what? I'm not going to do it because it's my choice, and I choose not to. And the more I think you ask them to choose to, the more they dig in and say no. And I've heard that directly from people in the community.

FADEL: You know, July Fourth is coming. How concerned are you about the gatherings in your state this weekend?

FREDERICK: I'm very concerned, to be honest with you. I'm very concerned. We always looked at our holidays last year, and we'd go, OK, seven to 10 days out, what is this going to look like? But the good news at that time was there were mask mandates, you know, restrictions on occupancy in local restaurants and stores, and so that helped. That went away just before Memorial Day weekend. The mask mandate was dropped, and businesses opened up. And that was - you know, you think about the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May. Well, our surge started the first week of June.

There are things happening all over the community this weekend. As you know, it's Fourth of July weekend. Fortunately, unfortunately, we have a great forecast this weekend. The weather is going to be great. So families are going to...

FADEL: Yeah.

FREDERICK: ...Want to get together, go to the fireworks. There's a big motorcycle event in town that they're anticipating about 5,000 motorcycle enthusiasts to come to town this weekend to celebrate.

Long answer to your question, I'm very concerned about what next weekend's going to look like 'cause that's about seven days out. Five to seven days is when we'll start to know, you know, what did this weekend bring us?

FADEL: You know, listening to you talk about the events coming up and mask mandates no longer there, social distancing no longer required, and it really does feel like in most of the U.S., people feel like the worst of the pandemic is behind us, and they're out and they're gathering again. What lesson do you think the country needs to learn from what's happening in Missouri right now?

FREDERICK: I was watching the news, and they made a comment about the surge in delta. And even the reporter said, you know, in this post-pandemic era. And I was like, wait, wait. We're not post-pandemic. Let me take you upstairs to the sixth floor and to the fourth floor and the fifth floor, and I will show you we're not out of this yet. We're still - just over the last week, we've had 13 patients die in this hospital from COVID. So this is very real. Our staff, our physicians - they're tired. They're worn thin. And they have that extra sort of added layer of, you know, nobody's doing anything about this. And they kind of forgot that this is very alive in our community.

And that's the other scary thing that other people should be worried about, is there's a lot of people who don't live in Greene County coming to Greene County this summer. We have a very active virus in this community, and then they're going to go home. And I think that's what everybody should be thinking about, is how do we protect our communities in case someone travels to southwest Missouri and brings this delta variant back with them?

FADEL: Erik Frederick is the chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Mo. Thank you so much for really all that you're doing.

FREDERICK: Well, thank you, Leila. And I appreciate the opportunity to tell our story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.