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COVID-19 Cases Rise In Southwest Missouri

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Across the country, certain areas are experiencing devastating surges in COVID-19 cases. Southwest Missouri is in the midst of one, and that's where we're going to begin today's program. Cases have more than tripled since May as hospitals reopened COVID units and add ventilators in an effort to tame an outbreak that health officials say was completely avoidable. They point to low vaccination rates in places like Greene County, home to Springfield, Mo., where less than 40% of the population has had at least one vaccination shot. And that's the highest county rate in that corner of the state.

Dr. William Sistrunk is lead infectious disease physician at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Mo. That's one of the hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients right now. And Dr. Sistrunk joins us from Springfield. Hello.

WILLIAM SISTRUNK: Hello. How are you today?

KURTZLEBEN: I'm good, but I understand that you had to reopen COVID units these past weeks and that hospitalizations continue to rise. So can you start by telling me what you're seeing in your hospital right now?

SISTRUNK: Well, right now, our hospital census is up to 129 patients with COVID, with 29 of those patients in the intensive care unit and 27 of those patients requiring ventilatory support.

KURTZLEBEN: And how does that compare to the last peaks of the virus that you've seen there, for example, this last winter? Is it a similar type of patient as well?

SISTRUNK: Well, actually, back in December, late December was our peak during the winter at about 113 patients. At that time, we were seeing mostly higher-risk patients. But now, we're seeing more younger patients. We actually have three children in the hospital that I was made aware of. And we currently have 129 with a lot of those patients below 60. And so we're seeing a younger population being admitted to the hospital, and they're also requiring more intensive care treatment than we have seen before.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, I'm wondering what you're seeing and hearing around your hospital right now as more patients come into the ICU, for example, from their family members. I do understand that the overall vaccination rate in Greene County is under 40%. I mean, do you get a sense that this surge might be prompting skeptics to go out and get the shot?

SISTRUNK: We have seen it within Greene County an increase in numbers of people being vaccinated over the past three or four weeks as we've seen our numbers in our community and in our hospitals continue to increase. So I think that just having more patients contracting COVID in your community has led to an increased number of people wanting to get vaccinated. I think we were all hoping that we wouldn't see COVID much this summer, but it is definitely not the fact here in Springfield, Mo.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah. And like you said, almost all of those hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people. So I am wondering how you feel, having cared for COVID patients for the last 14, 15 months, just knowing that this was avoidable?

SISTRUNK: Well, you know, this is an illness that once you get sick, you can be ill for a long period of time. And it can lead to very severe illness. And so we really focus on prevention. All of the health care workers really across the country - and Springfield's the same as - we've heard reports from many other communities - is that the health care workers are working very hard. And we know that not all of these illnesses can be preventable by vaccine, but most of them can be.

And everybody's working hard. We're all here. We're dedicated to our community, and we're dedicated to getting people better. But everybody's getting tired. We really are. But the spirit here is still very good. We're all working together as a team, and we're all working together to try to get the word out so people will get vaccinated more. And so it won't lead to such severe illness in our community.

KURTZLEBEN: Are you concerned about burnout among the workers at your hospital?

SISTRUNK: Well, I think that burnout is a real issue. You know, the health care workers who are so dedicated to caring for these patients that are so ill - but this is continuing. We are not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel yet. We're all trying to help each other out and trying to work together as a team and care for each other. But I think that everybody needs to realize that taking care of COVID patients day in, day out is very, very taxing on everyone at the hospital. Burnout is very real, and we're all paying close attention to it because this epidemic is not over. We still - we're in the middle of the marathon. And we got a long way to go before the finish line.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Dr. William Sistrunk, lead infectious disease physician at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Mo. Dr. Sistrunk, thank you so much for being with us.

SISTRUNK: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.