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COVID-19 hospitalizations up dramatically in Missouri

(AP) — COVID-19 cases are rising sharply again across Missouri, prompting renewed concerns about overcrowding at hospitals and long waits for emergency services and hospital beds.

Data posted on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday showed 1,637 people hospitalized with the virus. By comparison, 951 were hospitalized a month ago. The number of intensive care unit patients has risen to 338, up from 228 on Nov. 5. In-patient bed capacity is at 15% in the St. Louis region, 18% in Kansas City and just 12% in northwestern Missouri.

Dr. Clay Dunagan of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force said colder weather was driving more people indoors, giving the virus greater opportunity to spread, especially among the unvaccinated. He also cited “reduced masking and distancing as people have gotten tired of these precautions.”

Dunagan added a third factor: Immunity is starting to wane for those who got shots early on. He urged everyone to get a booster shot.

“Right now, we are losing ground against the virus and seeing a pretty clear escalation (in hospitalizations) in the region,” Dunagan said during a news conference on Monday.

The situation is similar in Kansas City. A weekly report posted on the Kansas City region’s COVID-19 data hub cited “an alarming upward trend” in hospitalizations, mostly among people who are not vaccinated.

The report noted that the high volume of COVID-19 patients may lead to “longer wait times for emergency services and a decreased availability of local hospital beds.” Dunagan raised similar concerns and said some elective procedures may be delayed if the surge escalates.

Only one case of the Omicron variant of the virus has been confirmed in Missouri — in St. Louis — but Dunagan said it was just a matter of time before Omicron leads to even more cases.

COVID-19 also is hitting hard again in many schools.

Vaccination rates remain low among children and teenagers. While 52% of all Missourians have completed vaccination, just 13.8% of children ages 5-14 and 41% of children ages 15-17 have completed vaccination, according to the state dashboard.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, said in a news release Wednesday that he was asking parents to identify school districts enforcing measures such as mask mandates and quarantines.

A day earlier, Schmitt threatened legal actions if school districts or local public health agencies enforced COVID-19 mandates, citing a November ruling by Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green, who declared local health orders “null and void.”

Schmitt’s spokesman, Chris Nuelle, said health mandates in schools are illegal because the state “legislature has not delegated authority to school districts or school boards to enact public health orders, and the Cole County ruling further reinforces that point.”

But the Kearney School District in western Missouri is still requiring masks. In a letter to parents sent Tuesday, Interim Superintendent Todd White wrote that attorneys for the district “advised us that no action is necessary at this time in response to the Attorney Genera’s letter.”

Columbia Public Schools also sent a letter to parents Tuesday, saying the district was still reviewing the effect of the judge’s ruling.

“In the meantime, we will maintain the health protocols currently in place at CPS and in our buildings,” the letter stated.

While the status of St. Louis County’s mask mandate is under debate, the mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City – both Democrats – say their COVID-19 mitigation efforts were approved by elected officials, and are legal.

Nuelle, in an email, disagreed.

“We’ve been clear that all COVID-19 public health orders are null and void,” he said.

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