Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this week named southwestern Missouri – the region that includes Branson – as one of several hotspots for the variant.
“Low vaccination rates in these counties combined with high rates and lax mitigation policies that do not protect those not vaccinated against disease will certainly and unfortunately lead to more unnecessary suffering, hospitalization and potential death,” Walensky said in a briefing on Thursday. . “We really encourage people who have not yet been vaccinated to get vaccinated and wear a mask until you do.”
Branson is an ideal incubator, the kind of place that would worry Walensky. It sits at a crossroads between the American Southwest and the Midwest and hosts large crowds packing eateries and restaurants. It fills a lot with sensitive Americana and is mostly aimed at conservative regions, where the pandemic has become a political litmus test and vaccinations are delaying the national average.
Trump flags and hats dots in the streets; almost no one wears masks.
And there seems to be little concern in Branson, where – as in other conservative regions across the United States – doubts about vaccines and the virus both run deep. The city elected Larry Milton as mayor in April after he ran on an anti-mask platform. Branson is now fully reopened, performances have resumed at full capacity – Dolly Parton’s Stampede suggests masks for the unvaccinated but does not require them – tourists are on the streets and restaurants are full. Covid restrictions have disappeared.
Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson joined the party for a crowded outdoor July 4 party in the city in an outburst. The pastor, who did not respond to a request for comment, has offered mixed messages about vaccinations – he criticized President Joe Biden for proposing this week that shots could be promoted door to door, before tweeting Thursday that vaccination is the best way to prevent Covid-19.
Branson was the first place in Missouri where the Delta variant was found. Marc Johnson, a researcher from the University of Missouri who works with the state to track coronavirus variants, first discovered it on May 10 in part of the city’s sewer system. A week later, it was found in the second part – and in two other cities in Missouri. A week later it was in nearby counties. Now it’s all over the state.
“It’s everywhere,” Johnson said. “And I expect that wherever we have not yet seen a tip, we are doing so.”
The Delta variant now accounts for more than half of U.S. cases, according to CDC estimates. Of the counties with the most new cases, 93% are less than 40% vaccinated, Walensky said. These are the places where hospitalizations and deaths are rising among the unvaccinated and tend to be where Delta is dominant, she said, stressing that nearly every American who now becomes seriously ill or dies has not been vaccinated.
Branson’s most serious case goes to nearby Springfield, where a hospital this week set a record for admissions to Covid-19. Hospitals have publicly appealed to staff and ventilators.
“Suddenly, everyone said it was done, but it’s not,” said Tom Keller, president and CEO of Ozarks Healthcare, which operates a hospital and clinics in southern Missouri. “I do not know how the Delta variant came to Springfield, Missouri, and first came to the East Coast.”
The health community has not been blunt enough to warn about how Covid can ravage the body, Keller said: “We are becoming much more direct.”
Voting has shown that political conservatives are less likely to get the vaccine and more likely to believe the pandemic is over, a combination that, in the light of Delta, risks new outbreaks.
In neighboring Arkansas, cases and admissions are also rising sharply. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said this week that the state was experiencing its largest increase in admissions since January. “We’re losing ground,” he said, adding that the Delta variant seems to hit younger people.
The average age of patients hospitalized for Covid-19 has dropped to 54.7 years from 62.7 in January, he said. “If you do not want to go to the hospital, you need to be vaccinated,” he warned.
Across the western border of Missouri, Kansas has begun publishing publicity to ward off what officials fear will be a proliferation of the variant stemming from the July 4 celebration. The state has been monitoring rising caseloads in neighboring countries for several weeks, said Sam Coleman, a spokesman for the governor.
But in Missouri, local health officials say there is still deep skepticism in the region about coronavirus vaccines, and many people are being misinformed about the safety of the shot and the danger of the virus.
A political lens is inevitable for the growing U.S. vaccination gap. The vaccination rate in counties that backed Biden as president is about 12 percentage points higher than those who supported Donald Trump, up from 2.2 percent in April, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’ve had it, it was not so much, I do not want to be vaccinated,'” said Craig McCoy, a former paramedic who is president of Mercy Springfield Communities, which runs a hospital in Springfield. “What they are not aware of is that people with antibodies of the alpha variant are sitting in our hospital with the Delta variant.”
In Branson, some are skeptical of the vaccine – saying they are concerned that it is premature and potentially unsafe.
“It’s a lack of evidence,” said Stephen Pello, 63, a carpenter from Texas, during a recent visit to Branson. “I do not trust the CDC, I do not trust the politicians; I trust what the Bible tells me and what the Spirit puts in my heart. ”
Pello said his doctor mentioned vaccination for him but did not press on the issue after Pello said he needed more information. He assumes that others like him can get the shot if Trump more strongly urges them to do so, but he said even that would not change his mind.
Charliese Holder, 61, a visitor to Branson from Oklahoma, also expressed skepticism with information from government officials, including Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious diseases.
“I think there has been too much wish washing from Fauci and the others,” Holder said as she ate an ice cream cone outside a packed store on Branson’s main street. She said she has not ruled out getting the vaccine but is in doubt about its effectiveness.
“Even though they call this a vaccine, in itself, as they make it sound, I don’t think it’s any different than the flu shot,” she said. “There are many unanswered questions.”
Johnson, a researcher at the University of Missouri, said the unknown key to recent outbreaks is when case loads will plateau and what the Delta wave will look like in stronger vaccinated communities.
“We are not done, the virus is not done, there is a wave coming through the United States. It may be that the really heavily vaccinated places are doing okay, but I’m not even really sure, ”Johnson said. “Either way, I’m absolutely convinced it will not be in Missouri.”