State health officials are warning COVID cases are soaring in rural parts of the state, including the Lake of the Ozarks, and soon hospitals in those areas could be sending patients to urban parts of Missouri.

Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) released a ‘hotspot advisory’ for Camden, Morgan, and Miller counties, where the Lake of the Ozarks is. Gov. Mike Parson tweeted Friday the state’s health care system remains stable, but Cox Health in southwest Missouri disagrees.

“We’re in a crisis, and in that crisis, things change very, very quickly, and we really are seeing a significant escalation in our number of patients in our hospitals,” Chief Medical Officer for Cox Health Dr. Shawn Usery said. “We opened up our COVID ICU back in June, and we really have almost consistently left that open since.”

Missouri reported more than 1,500 new COVID cases Friday. Usery said the number of COVID patients at Cox Health has doubled in a month.

“We’re seeing a significant surge in patients in our medical-surgical COVID units, as well as our COVID ICUs, and that surge continues to grow every day as we look a week ago; we’re up 11 percent from a week ago,” Usery said. “We’re at 106 patients today.”

Missouri continues to make national headlines as the Delta variant spreads like wildfire. Usery said the variant spreads faster and is causing patients to become sicker.

“If you look at the people admitted to our hospital with COVID pneumonia, 98 percent of those are unvaccinated,” Usery said. “This is a real virus. People are dying. Young people are dying, and that’s different than what we saw in the first wave.”

The state’s epidemiologist expects to see more cases in the coming weeks before there is an improvement.

“We are heading towards widespread infection with the Delta virus, but because we have communities with different levels of vaccinations, the impact of this infection spreading in the state will not be the same in all communities,” Dr. George Turabelidze said. “We do see transmission moving from small-town Missouri to more urban areas.”

Acting Director for DHSS Robert Knodell said Friday that the state will help hospitals with staff and equipment if needed.

“We are fortunate here in the state we do have a stockpile of over 500 ventilators available to healthcare facilities that may request them to treat COVID-19 patients,” Knodell said. “The state has received no request yet at this time for ventilator support.”

Knodell also mentioned Vizient, the hospital staffing company that contracted with the state earlier this year to help with staffing concerns. He said no one yet has reached out for help. Down in southwest Missouri, Usery is concerned with rising cases they won’t have enough staff.

“We have plenty of beds, we have plenty of ventilators right now, we have lots of PPE, we just don’t have the staff, and the staff we do have is tired,” Usery said. “We are vetting every different avenue to get staff to take care of our patients, whether it be nursing, respiratory therapists, aids, or physicians.”

During the peak of the pandemic, the state of Missouri was reporting 3,000 new hospitalizations daily. Currently, the state is seeing an average of 1,000 a day.

“I do not think I would describe it [the state’s health care system] as stable, no,” Usery said. “Our nurses are getting tired of zipping up body bags.”

Of the 106 patients at Cox Health, Usery said a third is from Greene County, but they are starting to see patients from as far east as the Lake of the Ozarks, as far west as Oklahoma, and as far south as the Arkansas line.

“We made it through the winter wave, and things got a little bit better, and we started giving out the vaccine, and things started going really well, and then we hit a wall,” Usery said. “Our communities stopped getting vaccinated, and we are not seeing that uptick in the vaccine, so the Delta variant enters our community, and we don’t have that herd immunity, and it’s ravaging our community.”

The federal government has deployed two surge response teams to Greene County to help the health department.

“If we do not vaccinate most of us as a society, we can never stop this virus,” Turabelidze said.

The state is currently spending $5 million on a media campaign to promote vaccination. Missouri is also working on an incentive package for those who receive the vaccine, but officials have not yet released details on how it would work.