Record new cases, schools closing and hospitals filling up: Omicron surge has hit the Ozarks

Published: Jan. 19, 2022 at 7:26 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 19, 2022 at 9:21 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Unlike the Delta variant’s arrival in the U.S. where the Ozarks was one of the initial break-out points, the Omicron variant is a late arrival after starting on the coasts and moving to middle America.

But it’s finally arrived in the Ozarks.

“I’m sad to deliver the news this morning that our community is suffering from the enormous weight of an impact like we’ve never seen before,” said Springfield-Greene Co. Health Director Katie Towns at the start of a virtual media briefing on Wednesday.

That’s right. It’s hard to believe considering it doesn’t have the shock-and-awe factor of the initial outbreak, but COVID-19 numbers are worse now than they were when Greene County was placed under an emergency stay-at-home order in 2020.

On Tuesday alone there were 912 new cases in Greene County. CoxHealth recorded 896 positive test results on Tuesday which is over 700 more cases than the highest day during the Delta variant.

More than 900 people came for state-sponsored COVID tests at a parking lot next to Hammons Field on Tuesday and Springfield Public Schools as well as several other area districts called off classes through the end of this week.

SPS had 200 students and 100 staff members test positive on Tuesday adding to over 863 cases last week.

“I know many people asked why we didn’t just immediately transition to virtual learning,” said Dr. Grenita Lathan at the briefing. “Our staff members right now are not even well enough to teach virtually.”

Things are so serious that the Springfield School Board brought up the possibility of going back to mask mandates, a highly controversial topic because Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has threatened to sue any school district that doesn’t follow his interpretation of a Cole County court ruling. Schmitt believes that neither school districts nor health departments have the right to mandate masks or force people to quarantine.

On Wednesday a St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge ruled against Schmitt in his attempt to halt a mask mandate currently going on in St. Louis County. The judge denied Schmitt’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped the mandate, allowing it to continue. The next court date is set for February 8. In ruling against the restraining order the judge said Schmitt was “unlikely to succeed with this argument.”

Lathan admitted that SPS might end up in a similar situation if the school board goes back to a mask mandate for students (teachers and visitors are already required to wear masks).

“The board did discuss possibly reinstating a mask mandate for students,” she said. “But anytime you go against a legal directive it could result in litigation and if that’s the case we’ll go through the litigation process. But we need to all admit that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and so I’m hopeful that we can come together and do what’s best for everyone.”

Decisions by state officials are also affecting other aspects of dealing with the latest outbreak. Mercy and Cox have over 630 staff members combined who are out with COVD-related illnesses. In the past, Mercy and Cox could bring in out-of-state help but when Governor Mike Parson recently ended Missouri’s COVID-19 state of emergency, it meant that hospitals could no longer bring in doctors from out of state who don’t have licenses to practice in Missouri. The state of emergency had a waiver in place for that requirement.

“So any hope of physician support right now outside of our area is very limited,” explained CoxHealth President and CEO Steve Edwards. “The governor could declare this a public emergency again but I don’t believe he’ll do that. The legislature could pass legislation to support this but that would be a deliberative process and by the time they met and discussed it, we’ll probably be beyond the Omicron surge. So not a lot of hope and not a lot of help from our state right now.”

As for the possibility of another stay-at-home order?

“There are political pressures and complexities that I think are going to prevent those things from being used as mitigation strategies again,” Towns answered. “I don’t see that in the future in our community.”

While some are saying Omicron is a milder variant, Cox and Mercy have had 88 COVID-related deaths in January.

“There is no consolation to those families that Omicron is considered more mild,” Edwards said.

“The problem is the more this disease is out there and the more it’s allowed to spread, that’s where more variants develop,” added Mercy President Craig McCoy. “If you say you care about your community and your neighbors I would encourage you to please get vaccinated because until you do you have every bit as much ability to do harm and kill those around you by spreading something.”

“It’s hard to change a behavior over and over again,” Towns said. “And that’s what we’re asking people to do is to reestablish this act of wearing a mask when you’re out in public. It does make a difference.”

Officials agreed that the Omicron surge should start slowing down by the second week of February.

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