Two back-to-back family holidays, pandemic fatigue and a reduction in public attention to safety measures as vaccines begin to be distributed have all contributed to an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths across the Joplin metro area this month.

Ryan Talken, director of the Joplin Health Department, says people should continue to observe safety measures.

“It’s important to remember that the vaccine is only effective if enough people get vaccinated to stop the spread, and as of now there has been very limited number of people vaccinated in Joplin due to a very limited amount of vaccine available,” he said Tuesday. “We must continue to keep our defenses up until enough vaccine is available and given to make a difference.”

Joplin-area residents can do that by taking federally recommended actions to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, including wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing, washing hands, cleaning often-used surfaces at work and home, and getting a flu shot.

Joplin reached a milestone Monday when the health department announced the city's death toll had hit the 100 mark. Officials with the Jasper County Health Department announced a similar milestone on Dec. 29.

“The possibility was always known that we could reach this milestone ... at the beginning of the pandemic,” Talken said about reaching triple digits. “In March, it was known that COVID-19 had the potential to inflict this (type of) harm, but everyone hoped that we could slow it down and, with a little luck, possibly be done with it going into the fall.”

As we now know, Talken said, “that is not the case.”

November has served so far as Joplin’s deadliest month, with 33 COVID-19 deaths recorded. December saw 22 deaths. There have so far been seven deaths in January.

“It is too early to tell how the latest uptrend in cases will impact deaths,” Talken said. “We also know the vaccine is being administered in many of the long-term care settings in the area, which should play a role in diminishing” the area’s death rate, particularly among senior citizens.

Still, he said, there will be more deaths — locally, across the Show-Me State and around the world.

“I don’t want to predict a number, because of the unknown variables involved — variables such as how fast the vaccines will be available, the percentage of people that get vaccinated, the level of complacency in the population due to (pandemic fatigue) and what the virus decides to do,” he said. “The newer versions of the virus are being reported as more infectious than previous versions; however, the vaccine is still being reported as effective against these new variants.”

Still, the medical community’s rapid response to the pandemic — creating vaccines and other things such as antibody treatments — has most likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

“(They’ve) done an amazing job learning how to care for COVID-19 patients, which has reduced the total number of deaths," Talken said. "This level of care has, however, caused the hospitals to have limited space available due to treating patients longer. It’s important that we all do our part to reduce the number of COVID-19 infections, which will reduce the number of people being hospitalized and protect hospital capacity.”

The light, he said, is now visible at end of the proverbial tunnel, “but we’re not there yet," Talken said. "Everyone needs to continue to work together to not only protect themselves but also everyone they come into contact with.”

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