KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- Local health officials are uneasy about rising COVID-19 case numbers in Missouri, mostly of the new Delta variant.

The surge is happening in rural Missouri counties where vaccination rates are low.

“In the urban areas, the numbers really aren’t too bad as far as hospitalizations. In the more rural areas, where there’s less vaccine intake, I think that is the key,” Infectious Disease Dr. Dana Hawkinson said on the University of Kansas Health System daily COVID briefing Wednesday.

Dr. Steven Stites, Chief Medical Officer for University of Kansas Health System, mentioned in the briefing that the surge in Springfield, Missouri has all local health officials concerned.

Intensive care beds are filling up fast in hospitals there with a younger population of patients than past surges of the virus.

“It’s basically a race against time at this point to try to get more people vaccinated before we see more and more of this particular variant, because it is a lot more contagious. And so, I’m concerned about other parts of the state now,” said Dr. William Sistrunk, lead infectious disease doctor at Mercy Hospital in Springfield.

Mercy Hospital has more than 100 COVID-19 patients right now. At the height of their worst COVID-19 surge in winter, they maxed out at 160.

“In the meantime, we went down to less than 10 patients. But now, we’re back up to over 100 today. It’s a significant change in this part of the state and the increase was less gradual before. Cases went up quickly over the last three to four weeks” Sistrunk said.

The Delta variant accounts for more than 90% of positive cases in the Springfield area right now. Sistrunk said the variant appears to be more contagious. Patients seem to develop symptoms faster with the strain. It’s causing significant illness, especially in people with other health conditions.

“We’ve also seen a younger population become ill and actually be hospitalized, compared to what we had seen back in December and January,” Sistrunk said.

Vaccination rates are much higher in people older than 65. The majority of patients in the hospital range in age from their 20s to 50s.

“It’s telling us that the vaccines work, because more than 95% of people who are admitted to our facility are not vaccinated,” Sistrunk said.

Cox Hospital, also located in Springfield, is also dealing with the same surge in cases. As of Wednesday afternoon they had 98 COVID patients, compared to 79 the previous Friday, 56 on June 11, 36 on May 28, 20 on May 20, and 18 on May 14.

When asked about the rising cases of the Delta variant Wednesday, Governor Mike Parson said he was aware of the situation.

“What we are really concerned about it making sure that over 80% of the seniors in this state, 65 and over, have been vaccinated. That’s what drives up those hospital stays and everything,” he said.

Parson said the White House goal of having 70% of the population vaccinated by Fourth of July was unrealistic. He said he doubts the state will ever get that percentage of the population inoculated.

“The opportunities are there. We’ve just got to encourage people to take it who want to take it. But, there are still going to be people who just say they’re not going to take the vaccine and we’re going to have to deal with it,” Parson said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 53% of Americans have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. Missouri’s statewide total is at 44%. In the counties seeing the surges of the Delta variant, the percentage ranges from less than 40% to as low as 13%.

The Delta variant has been detected in wastewater in the Kansas City metro, meaning the variant is spreading locally.

Health officials expect the variant to become the most dominant strain of COVID-19 in the next six weeks or so. Health officials in Southwest Missouri hope what they’re going through serves as a wake-up call for people across the country to get vaccinated.

“We want to get the word out that Southwest Missouri may not be the only community that’s affected by this. This may be an early sign that we'll see this in other communities and, not only in Missouri, across the United States,” Sistrunk said.

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