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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Some COVID-19 patients are being turned away from an overwhelmed Springfield hospital where cases are surging and taken to less-stressed hospitals hundreds of miles away in Kansas City and St. Louis.

CoxHealth system president Steve Edwards said Tuesday the hospital in Springfield was on "COVID diversion" as the Delta variant gains momentum in the southwest part of the state, where large swaths of residents aren't vaccinated, the Springfield News-Leaders reported.

He said four Cox patients recently were transferred to BJC HealthCare, a St. Louis-area health system with 14 hospitals including Barnes-Jewish, a big teaching hospital tied to Washington University's medical school. Another four Cox patients have been transferred to St. Luke's Health System in Kansas City, Edwards said.

Edwards cited internal Cox data showing 47 COVID patients transferred into Cox facilities from June 1-21, many of them from hospitals in smaller communities such as Lebanon and Mountain View, while 23 transferred out.

At the city's other hospital, Mercy Springfield, patients haven't been sent to bigger cities so far, President Craig McCoy said.

Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, said one problem is "hospitals aren't as well-staffed as during the surge" of COVID-19 infections from last winter.

"Many have reduced the expensive agency staff that helped then get through the high hospitalization months," Dillon told the News-Leader by email Tuesday.

Many pandemic contracts between hospitals and temporary workers such as traveling nurses have expired, including a big state contract between Missouri and Texas-based health care staffing firm Vizient Inc.

"Those staff have probably departed for their next placements," Dillon said.

Another problem cited by health care leaders is the return of patients who need hospital care for non-COVID treatments.

"It is fair to say that hospitals are already stretched to address pent-up demand for health services that were curtailed last year, and into spring," Dillon said.

The patient transfers come despite the reality vaccines are available at no charge within 5 miles from home for more than 80 percent of Missourians, as Gov. Mike Parson tweeted last week.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services' acting director, Robert Knodell, said in a statement the agency was working local and federal health officials and health care systems to provide resources and data analysis.

"We continue to promote and encourage vaccination as the most effective mitigation step the public can take to stop this virus in its tracks," he said.

Dillon, with the state hospital association, said because effective vaccines are now available, COVID-19 hospitalizations are "largely unnecessary."

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