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COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to spike in southwestern Missouri, and residents there are being urged to get vaccinated before gathering for Fourth of July activities.

Springfield-Greene County Acting Health Director Katie Towns said 142 new cases of the coronavirus were reported Tuesday, and the seven-day average has reached 62, the highest level since Feb. 10. Meanwhile, 76 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Greene County.

Towns, speaking at a news conference, said Memorial Day gatherings were a source of some of the recent spread, in part because new faster-spreading variants are in the region. She said there was concern about the pending Independence Day get-togethers.

"Gatherings are continuing to be a place where COVID is spread, just as it has throughout this pandemic," Towns said.

Coronavirus-related cases and hospitalizations across the U.S. have dropped off sharply since the winter, due in large part to vaccinations. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 42.1 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. Missouri lags behind with 35.6 percent of all residents fully vaccinated, and rates of full vaccination in the southwestern part of the state are far lower than that.

State health department data shows 31 percent of Greene County residents have completed their shots, and several southwestern Missouri counties have full vaccination rates below 30 percent — and a few are below 20 percent.

Two northern Missouri counties — Livingston and Grundy — have the state's highest per capita numbers of new cases, based on seven-day averages. However, the next eight jurisdictions with the highest seven-day averages — seven counties and the city of Joplin — are all in the southwestern corner of Missouri.

Cox Health CEO Steve Edwards wrote on Twitter Monday the Delta variant is "likely spreading," playing a role in the increased illnesses and hospitalizations. Cox Health operates hospitals throughout southwestern Missouri.

"Those that aren't vaccinated are sitting ducks," Edwards wrote. "Those vaccinated are nearly 100 percent protected from severe illness and hospitalization."

Hospitalizations remain steady statewide, with 620 people being treated for COVID-19 at Missouri hospitals as of Saturday, the most recently available data.

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