O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) — A swath of southern Missouri is seeing a big rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations at just the wrong time — as tourists eager to get out after being cooped up for a year make their way to popular destinations like Branson and Lake of the Ozarks.
Data from the state health department's COVID-19 dashboard on Wednesday showed 206 people hospitalized with the virus in southwestern Missouri — nearly double the 111 hospitalizations from that region at the start of May. The number of people in intensive care units in the region has tripled — from 22 a month-and-a-half ago to 65 now. Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations have remained steady since March.
Health experts cite two factors driving the surge: The presence of the faster-spreading Delta variant, and a reluctance among residents to get vaccinated.
While 52.6% of Americans have initiated vaccination, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most southern Missouri counties are well short of 40%. Branson sits in Taney and Stone counties, where the vaccination rates as of Wednesday were 27.4% and 28.4% respectively. Miller County, at Lake of the Ozarks, had a vaccination rate of 22.9%.
"We think that with the Delta variant here, those that aren't vaccinated are just sitting ducks," said Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth, which operates several hospitals in the region.
Memorial Day marked the unofficial beginning of the tourism season, and big crowds are gathering again at Branson's popular shows and attractions, and at the beaches, resorts and entertainment areas around the Lake of the Ozarks.