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story.lead_photo.caption Nurses and doctors in the CoxHealth Emergency Department in Springfield, Mo., wear personal protective equipment to treat patients with COVID-19, Friday, July 16, 2021. Southwest Missouri is seeing a surge in Delta variant cases, with hospitals nearing capacity and requesting help from the state for staffing and an alternative care site. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP)

With hospitals swamped and hundreds of cases daily from a delta variant surge of COVID-19 infection, Springfield is a warning of what is ahead for the rest of Missouri if vaccination rates do not increase dramatically, Mayor Ken McClure said Sunday morning on a national news program.

McClure defended door-to-door efforts to boost vaccinations, calling the controversy "overblown."

Speaking on "Face the Nation" on CBS, McClure said he thought the delta variant that is causing the massive run-up in cases likely came to the city because of its central location for business in southwest Missouri.

It took hold because of low vaccination rates, he said, blaming social media for spreading misinformation.

"People are talking about fears that they have, health-related fears, what it might do to them later in their lives and what is contained in the vaccination, and that information is just incorrect," McClure said. "We, as a society and certainly in our community, are being hurt by it."

During May, Greene County reported an average of 25 COVID-19 infections per day, according to data from the state Department of Health and Senior Services. During the last seven days of the month, the rate was 35 per day.

For June, the rate was 84 per day and 123 per day in the last seven days of the month. So far in July, the county has reported 183 cases per day, with the rate rising to 206 per day in the seven days through Sunday.

"My message is that the surge is coming," McClure said. "The delta variant will be there. It is going to spread, it is already spreading throughout Missouri. Take advantage of this time and get your vaccination rate as high as you can."

The state health department reported 1,394 additional COVID-19 cases Sunday as the seven-day average of reported daily cases hit 1,956 per day, up 121 percent since June 30 and the highest since Jan. 30. There were 1,440 people being treated as inpatients in Missouri hospitals as of Thursday, the highest since Feb. 10 and up 129 percent from the low this year on May 23.

The delta variant, which by early June was rapidly spreading in a southwest Missouri corridor from Branson, through Springfield, to the Lake of the Ozarks, remains most active in the southwest but is surging in a far broader region.

Weekly monitoring of dozens of wastewater systems across the state shows the delta variant as the dominant strain for 32 sewage systems sampled during the week beginning June 28.

"We haven't crested yet," said Marc Johnson, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

In late June, Johnson said his data pointed to cases doubling or tripling in July.

The wastewater sampling is showing it can predict local surges and whether cases will level off or continue to increase. Johnson's program, run in conjunction with the state health department and the Department of Natural Resources, can provide results in three days.

A report on genetic sequencing of a sample collected from a COVID-19 patient can take up to three weeks.

"I have been waiting for delta plus; it is not a variant of concern, but it is a strain of delta that has an additional mutation," Johnson said.

There are 42 contiguous reporting jurisdictions, starting in McDonald County in the far southwest, among the 50 in the state with the highest infection rates so far this month. Due north, it reaches Vernon and St. Clair counties. Moving northeast, it includes Boone, Callaway and Cole counties. Due east, it reaches Butler County.

The region includes the major cities of Springfield and Columbia, tourist attractions of Branson and the Ozark Scenic Riverways, and hundreds of small communities with limited health care facilities.

Each of those counties has rates of reported infection for the month so far ranging from 460 to 1,475 cases per 100,000 residents. Ten counties have rates for the month above 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to nine for all of June.

Statewide, the rate of reported infections so far for July is 450.5 cases per 100,000 residents, up from 312.8 per 100,000 in June.

"You can assume that if there is an infection in the state of Missouri, it is delta variant," Johnson said.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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