O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) — A swath of southern Missouri is seeing a big rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations at just the wrong time — as tourists eager to get out after being cooped up for a year make their way to popular destinations such as Branson and Lake of the Ozarks.
Data from the state health department's COVID-19 dashboard on Wednesday showed 206 people hospitalized with the virus in southwestern Missouri — nearly double the 111 hospitalizations from that region at the start of May. The number of people in intensive care units in the region has tripled — from 22 a month-and-a-half ago to 65 now. Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations have remained steady since March.
Health experts cite two factors driving the surge: The presence of the faster-spreading Delta variant, and a reluctance among residents to get vaccinated.
While 52.6% of Americans have initiated vaccination, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most southern Missouri counties are well short of 40%. Branson sits in Taney and Stone counties, where the vaccination rates as of Wednesday were 27.4% and 28.4% respectively. Miller County, at Lake of the Ozarks, had a vaccination rate of 22.9%.
“We think that with the Delta variant here, those that aren’t vaccinated are just sitting ducks," said Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth, which operates several hospitals in the region.
Memorial Day marked the unofficial beginning of the tourism season, and big crowds are gathering again at Branson's popular shows and attractions, and at the beaches, resorts and entertainment areas around the Lake of the Ozarks.
Jason Outman, CEO of the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Branson set a record with 9.1 million visitors in 2019. That number dropped to 6.3 million last year amid the pandemic, and tourism tax revenue fell 30%.
The rebound has been huge. So far in 2021, Branson is on pace to top 2019 attendance and tax revenue, Outman said. He doesn’t believe the uptick in coronavirus cases will do anything to dampen the resurgence.
“We’re seeing individuals that are just ready to come and have fun and experience what Branson has to offer,” Outman said.
Lisa Rau at the Branson area amusement park Silver Dollar City agreed. She said visitors are enthusiastic even though the park continues with precautions, which include frequent disinfecting, crowd limits and asking the unvaccinated to wear masks.
“People are wanting to get out and travel, they’re wanting to get to the outdoor activities, which is something we have an abundance of,” Rau said.
But health leaders are worried about the emerging presence of the Delta variant in southern Missouri. The variant was first detected in India and is a more transmissible version of the disease. It currently makes up 6% of all cases in the U.S.
The variant is also believed to be responsible for a surge in northern Missouri. CDC data shows that some of the counties with the highest per capita increases in the nation are in the state's sparsely populated northern tier.
While those counties have higher per capita cases, southern Missouri counties are seeing big jumps in actual cases.
Greene County, which includes Springfield, reported 375 new cases in the past seven days — the most in the state. By contrast, St. Louis city, whose population of 300,000 is roughly the same as Greene County's, had 74 new cases over the same seven days. Taney County had 88 new cases over the same period.
New cases also are rising in counties along the Lake of the Ozarks, including Camden and Miller counties. The lake region drew national attention during the Memorial Day weekend of 2020 when hundreds of people gathered at bars and swimming area as the coronavirus was spreading across the U.S.
New restrictions are unlikely. Political leaders, business operators and residents in Branson and the Lake of the Ozarks region were overwhelmingly opposed to mask mandates and other measures last year, even at the height of the pandemic.
Edwards said he fears the surge will worsen. The CoxHealth hospitals in southwestern Missouri have seen the number of patients triple to just under 60 since late May.
“We have worries,” he said. “I hope we don’t hit our high water marks from this winter where we had as many as 170 COVID-positive patients in-house. But I don’t think we’ve hit our peak this summer yet, either.”