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Last week, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported one in every three COVID-19 tests in the state were positive.

COVID-19 cases throughout the region have been increasing because of the highly infectious Omicron variant of the disease, which is causing increased stress on area health systems.

The state of Missouri’s statistics show Taney County with 253 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the last seven-day period ending January 6, with an additional 145 suspected cases. Stone County has 84 confirmed cases in the last week, with an additional 49 cases.

Katie Towns, head of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, noted all counties in Missouri are seeing rises in the number of cases.

“We’re going to see these numbers rise over the next couple weeks,” Towns said at a Jan. 5 press conference.

Area health leaders are saying the challenge from Omicron is not necessarily the variant will make people as sick as the Delta variant or the initial strain, but the infectiousness of the disease can cause a more rapid spread, and more patients puts more impact on the ability for a healthcare system to provide care.

“At Cox, our COVID cases are up sharply,” Amanda Hedgpeth, president of Springfield Cox Hospitals, said at the press conference. “We have 124 patients hospitalized at Cox with COVID, a 31% increase in a week. We anticipate the hospitalization numbers to increase over the next week.”

Cox Medical Center Branson, whose COVID-19 unit was designed to hold six patients while sending the rest to Springfield, is currently holding 15 patients.

Craig McCoy, President of Mercy Springfield, said at the press conference he could say “ditto” to the statistics which were shared by Hedgpeth.

“We’re seeing a rapid spike,” McCoy said.

The two hospital spokespeople were urging the community to get vaccinated as a way to stop the spread of the virus.

Katie Towns, head of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, acknowledged the comments of many critics regarding the vaccine not stopping infection, but noted there are significant benefits to receiving a vaccination against the virus.

“The vaccination is not a fool-proof way of never contracting COVID, but it will absolutely improve your chances of getting a less severe infection, and reduce your risk of ending up in the hospital or die,” Towns said. “Too many people have regretted the decision not to get the vaccination until it was too late.”

Towns, Hedgpeth, and McCoy all promoted booster shots for those who had the original two-shot vaccinations.

“We know boosters are the best way to stop severe illness and hospitalization,” Hedgpeth said. 

McCoy agreed, but added the boosters can also assist residents who want to help lower the load on the healthcare systems.

“The ideal is not to take up a hospital bed and the best way to help is to get vaccinated,” McCoy said.

Towns said booster shots are vital to those with significant health challenges.

“In the immunocompromised, we may see more severe disease without booster shots,” Towns said.

Towns and McCoy spoke about masking, and addressed concerns regarding cloth masks not being much of a benefit in stopping the spread of the disease. However, all involved supported masking.

“A mask is better than no mask, so we’re going to ask people to use masks in whatever fashion you have available to you,” Towns said. “If you are going to be in a congregate setting and you have access to a more robust form of mask, we would ask you please use those. But any mask will help us limit transmission at this point.”

However, McCoy said cloth masks cannot be used at Mercy facilities. He said “level 2” masks must be worn, and if someone shows up with a cloth mask they will be given a surgical level mask.

Local officials are also answering questions from residents who see the major symptoms of the Omicron variant in parallel with the flu. A pulmonologist with Cox Medical Center Branson says the two have a significant difference which should lead people to get a vaccine.

“Omicron variant is different from a severe case of flu because it’s way more contagious so more people are getting really sick and stressing the already overworked, undersupplied and understaffed hospital systems,” Dr. Heloise Labuschagne told Branson Tri-Lakes News. 

“The COVID vaccine is not a guarantee against getting COVID, but usually ensures that you do not end up with severe COVID pneumonia requiring ICU level of care.”

While Labuschagne said she could not tell the specific long-term effects of the Omicron variant, but they are seeing long-term impact from previous strains.

“​​We still see fibrotic lung disease in people who weren’t that sick initially that come to see us six months later,” Labuschagne said. “That’s something only time will tell.”

Health officials are urging anyone who believes they may have COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 to be tested. Last week, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported one in every three COVID-19 tests in the state were positive.

CoxHealth is offering free virtual visits to anyone concerned they may have COVID-19. When you log into coxhealth.com and choose a virtual visit, use the codes “COVID” or “GETWELL” to have a free consultation.

In Taney County, contact the Taney County Health Department for testing information, either through their website taneycohealth.org/covid19 or by calling 417-334-4544 ext. 590. Booster clinics are available through the website.

In Stone County, contact the Stone County Health Department through their website, stonecountyhealthdepartment.com, or by calling 417-357-6134.

Testing is also available through retail pharmacy locations such as Walgreens or CVS. However, at-home COVID-19 tests can be costly, versus free testing at most healthcare or health department facilities. In addition, according to the Stone County Health Department, home tests are not allowed as a testing out option for school quarantine or most work location quarantines.

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