The delta variant of the novel coronavirus is gaining a frightening foothold in areas of the country with low vaccination rates, spurring the White House to mobilize "surge response teams" to combat the variant that threatens to undo the nation's progress in beating back the pandemic.
About 1,000 counties in the U.S. have vaccination rates below 30%, primarily in the Southeast and Midwest, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday. Walensky warned that communities with low vaccination rates remain vulnerable to the "hyper-transmissible" variant.
In Southwest Missouri, CoxHealth CEO Steve Edwards has been sounding the alarm on Twitter as he sees the variant take hold in his community, causing hospitalizations and cases to rise. The vaccination rates in some of the counties surrounding Springfield are below 30%, according to data from the CDC.
For the first time throughout the entire pandemic, Springfield, Missouri-based CoxHealth has had to divert patients to hospitals in larger metropolitan areas such as Kansas City and St. Louis.
"It's grown so rapidly that it's outstripped our ability to meet the need," Edwards said in an interview on Thursday ahead of the holiday weekend.
The main problem is the six-hospital system does not have enough nurses to respond to the latest spike in hospitalizations and is struggling to find traveling nurses to fill the demand. Right now, CoxHealth has 100 traveling nurses. It needs double that amount, Edwards said.
"We can't find them," he said. "We think that might be because of the seasonality of [traveling nurses], a lot of people worked very hard in the winter months, they put in extra hours, made extra money and now maybe they're home with their kids in the summer."
CoxHealth was well prepared for the first surge of COVID-19. It built an entirely new unit of 33 beds in response to the pandemic.
Edwards wants other hospital operators to know that this latest variant seems to take hold much more quickly, even with some level of protection from vaccines.
"It'll turn faster than it did in the fall in terms of case count, so you won't have much time to get ready, so get ready now," Edwards said.
CoxHealth is currently treating more than 100 COVID-19 positive patients. Just a few weeks ago, that number hovered around 14 patients. At its highest point, the system reached 170 COVID-19 patients.
At this time, Edwards said the system is not shutting down electives due to the demands of COVID-19 patients. His hospitals are also full because they're treating more routine patients who put off care last year.
As the holiday weekend approaches, some are fearful that more gatherings could ignite more outbreaks, particularly in areas of low vaccinations rates. Some local governments, including Los Angeles and St. Louis, are urging people to mask up indoors, even if they're already vaccinated, to slow the spread of the variant, coming on top of renewed advice on masking by the World Health Organization.
Also, some parts of the country are experiencing record-high temperatures, putting further strain on hospitals resources.