The Joplin region is seeing the effect of Fourth of July gatherings from two weeks ago, with health officials continuing to report an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations with younger people requiring lifesaving measures.
Hospitalizations among COVID-19 patients in Joplin continue to surpass 100 for the second consecutive week this month. Mercy Hospital and Freeman Health System — Joplin’s two largest hospital systems — both reported having 54 COVID-19 inpatients Monday.
The Jasper County Health Department reported nearly 400 COVID-19 cases over the past week alone. As of Sunday, there have been 394 COVID-19 cases reported in the previous seven days, according to the county dashboard. The total deaths in Jasper County is 169. Levels of community transmission in Jasper County remain high, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website said.
Freeman Health System’s patients were at its Joplin and Neosho hospitals, with 17 in intensive care, 30 in the medical COVID-19 unit and seven on ventilators, which is up from one person last week.
Jessica Liberty, Freeman’s infection prevention and control manager, said that is the most COVID-19 patients on ventilators that they’ve had since the onset of the pandemic. The hospital’s peak ventilator usage was recorded in early December with six patients.
“Our big hope is that this will be the worst that we see, but I’m looking at our TeleTracking data right now of our patients that have been admitted, and I’m not sure if that’s going to be the case, honestly,” Liberty said.
Many of those patients on ventilators are younger than last year’s demographic. Freeman currently has a teenager on a ventilator for the first time. One of the biggest shifts from the weekend has been more patients requiring higher oxygen needs, according to Liberty.
“We’re using our resources to the max with these patients because they are younger, so we’re doing the lifesaving measures, but we’re doing them longer now,” she said. “We’re walking into uncharted territory.”
Low vaccination rates coupled with the presence of the delta variant has led to the surge in cases in Southwest Missouri over recent weeks. The highly transmissible delta variant is causing more serious illness and hospitalizations among those who have not been vaccinated, particularly those under age 65.
Even though the patients may be younger, the recent round of COVID-19 cases are requiring more levels of care than has been needed since Joplin’s first recorded case in March 2020. Liberty said the hospital’s acuity level — the severity of a hospitalized patient’s illness and the level of attention received from medical personnel — has increased dramatically.
“When you move into transitional care or intensive care, those people need lifesaving measures performed ongoing, meaning they can’t breathe on their own for whatever reason, so they require medication and a ventilator,” she said.
Liberty said they’re at the point now where hospitalizations are worse than they have been in the past and contingency plans are being discussed on how to move forward safely.
“It’s like a rubber band — you can only stretch it so far, and then it starts to weaken, and I think this is where we’re at,” she said. “We’re in that extended rubber band stage where the elasticity is weakening. In the hospital world, your best case scenario is that you have another hospital that’s not that far away that you can ask for help. Unfortunately, we’re all in the same boat.”
Mercy Hospital Joplin’s patients were at its clinics in Joplin and Carthage; 13 are in intensive care, and 12 are on ventilators.
Since June, 113 of 124 inpatients, or 91%, at Mercy Joplin with COVID-19 were unvaccinated, according to hospital spokesman Jordan Larimore.
“Right now, we have two inpatients who had been fully vaccinated,” Larimore said in an email to the Globe. “One of them is in critical care (ICU).”
Mercy has also been seeing a steady increase in COVID-19 patients. The hospital admitted 48 patients on July 5 and 58 on July 12. Larimore said the hospital’s ventilator needs have remained steady in the past week. Mercy reported 15 patients on ventilators last week, which dropped down to 12 patients this week.