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SPRINGFIELD (AP) — Health officials in Springfield and Joplin are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations amid relatively low vaccination rates and more people gathering for social events without masks or social distancing.

CoxHealth's flagship hospital in Springfield had 35-40 COVID-19 patients, which was more than double the number two weeks ago, CEO Steve Edwards said Thursday.

And nearly 20 percent of patients tested at CoxHealth facilities in southwestern Missouri are testing positive for COVID-19, which was up from just 5 percent two weeks ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Three hospitals in Joplin, about 70 miles west of Springfield, reported a total of 39 COVID-19 patients Wednesday. That figure hovered around 15 in early May, the Joplin Globe reported.

The increases come as two counties in northern Missouri — neighboring Linn and Livingston — reported big increases in COVID-19 cases. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Wednesday showed Livingston County with 348 cases per 100,000 residents over for the seven-day period ending Sunday, and Linn County with 243 cases per 100,000. The statewide average for the period was 27 cases.

Joplin straddles Jasper and Newton counties, which have relatively low vaccination rates. About 38 percent of Joplin residents have completed vaccinations but only 19 percent of Jasper County residents and 16 percent of Newton County residents have been vaccinated, according to state data.

In Greene County, 31 percent of the population has completed vaccination, state data shows, compared to 35 percent statewide.

Edwards, of CoxHealth, said more people have been gathering for events such as graduations and fewer people are wearing masks or social distancing.

"There are a lot of people that have chosen not to be vaccinated in our market, and they are that much more vulnerable," Edwards said.

Many patients are from neighboring Taney County — where 23 percent have completed vaccination, he said.

He said nurses tell him patients say they did not think COVID-19 was real, and that they wish they had been vaccinated.

"Then there's a percentage of people who say, 'Well, I'm living my life and I don't regret it,' and there's the occasional person that still believes they don't even have COVID," Edwards said.

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