The omicron surge that’s been battering the rest of the state has found its way into Southwest Missouri.

Both Joplin regional hospitals were reporting an increase in COVID-19-related hospitalizations this week.

On Wednesday, Freeman Health System reported 34 patients, with 20 in the medical COVID-19 unit, seven in the intensive care unit and two on ventilators. Two weeks ago, Freeman’s hospitalizations listed 26 patients.

Mercy Hospital Joplin officials on Wednesday reported 40 patients, with 10 in the hospital’s intensive care unit and 10 on ventilators. That number increased to 44 Thursday morning. On Dec. 21, Mercy recorded 22 COVID-positive hospitalizations.

“So looking at it (the numbers) from another perspective, our test positivity rate (combining Mercy Joplin and Mercy Carthage locations totals) from two weeks ago was 8.2%,” said Dr. Eden Esguerra, an infectious disease specialist at Mercy. “A week ago Thursday it was 10.8%. This week it’s at 18.5%.

The test positivity rate is the percentage of the total COVID-19 tests performed that produced a positive result, according to health officials. A rising test positivity rate, therefore, means a higher community transmission taking place in the area.

The increase in cases and hospitalizations over the past 14 days makes perfect sense, Esguerra said, “because it’s been a couple of weeks from Christmas where we all gathered with families, so this is the right time for us to see a surge.

“They all correlate — the number of positive cases we’re detecting and the number of hospital admissions,” she continued. “It’s almost like a straight line. It’s a fact.”

The World Health Organization said Thursday that a record 9.5 million COVID-19 cases were tallied over the past week thanks to the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which is now the dominant variant found in the U.S. In all, a 71% increase in positive cases worldwide was recorded since last Thursday, causing the health agency to liken the situation to that of a “tsunami.”

While omicron appears to be less deadly than the previously dominant delta variant — particularly among vaccinated people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — it is roughly twice as contagious. This is why, on Tuesday, Mercy officials updated their visitation policy to now require patients, employees and visitors to wear medical-grade surgical masks or KN95s, rather than traditional cloth masks. Boxes of these medical-grade masks have been placed at all hospital entrances.

And yes, Esguerra said, she and every other health official worldwide sound like broken records at this point, “but it’s a fact that the best way we can protect ourselves and each other is to vaccinate and to boost ourselves.”

This includes children, which is why youngsters age 5 and older in Missouri can now get vaccinated, “in order to protect people and to make (loved ones) around them safe,” she said.

Only about 35% of Americans have received a booster, despite the United States moving rapidly to expand who can receive additional shots. In Missouri, 1.1 million people have received the booster, while 3.75 million residents, or 61.2%, have received either one or both vaccine doses, per data.

Esguerra, at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, was the first Joplin resident to receive the Pfizer vaccine, calling it a “happy day” and saying she was “beyond words” to receive her shot to the arm.

That’s why it’s so difficult, she said this week, to see so many unvaccinated Joplin-area residents being hospitalized for COVID-19, nearly a year after the vaccines were made available — for free — to the general public.

“Yes, it’s frustrating … but my job is to take care of people and not to judge,” she said. “(But) it is very difficult, though … I try not to open that door because I then can’t do an effective job.

“My prayer and my hope,” Esguerra said, “is that we can keep it as it is and not mix science with politics; I think we will overcome this eventually — if we do our part.”

Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.

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