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Health officials fear delta variant could surge in other parts of Missouri within a month

They all believe local health department workers and community representatives are the best avenue for persuading residents to be vaccinated

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Three of Missouri's top health officials said Friday that trusted local leaders and community representatives must be the primary influencers in the state's efforts to reduce a surge in COVID-19 cases.

During a virtual news conference, Robert Knodell, acting director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the state continues to have a strong relationship with federal health experts but they all believe local health department workers and community representatives are the best avenue for persuading residents to be vaccinated.

Knodell said federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials agree that people from out of state cannot "parachute" into the state to persuade people to get vaccinated.

"We're on the same page as it relates to that," Knodell said. "So we've had various conversations about who effective local messengers are in rural communities as well as in our inner cities ... The federal government is more than willing to engage with us in those conversations with trusted local messengers and provide us with messaging materials and efforts that have been successful elsewhere." 

The comments came after Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said this week that he does not support a suggestion from President Joe Biden's administration that government employees go door-to-door to urge people to get vaccinated. 

READ MORE: Missouri governor doesn't want door-to-door vaccine help

Jeffrey Zeints, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, responded that the program would rely on local doctors, faith leaders and others, and suggesting otherwise was "misinformation."

State epidemiologist Dr. George Turabelidze said federal officials have not yet provided the state with details on how federal "surge response" teams might work. But he warned the delta variant is spreading from mostly rural areas to larger populations and health officials don't expect the surge to "turn around quickly" unless more people are vaccinated.

The state health department this week issued a hot spot advisory for three Lake of the Ozarks-area counties: Camden, Miller and Morgan. The agency predicted those areas could be the next to get hit hard with the delta variant because of spread from the southwest Missouri region.

READ ALSO: Lake of the Ozarks now considered a COVID hot spot

Turabelidze said vaccinations are the best way to prevent “another winter with masking, covered faces, limited travel (and) limited social life."

“Nobody wants that,” Turabelidze said.

Missouri hospital leaders this week have also renewed pleas for people to get vaccinated in hopes of preventing another surge.

Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth, on Thursday tweeted that within a month the delta variant could spread and hit other areas of the state just as hard as southwest Missouri.

“Begging people to take the vaccine while there is still time,” Edwards tweeted. “If you could see the exhaustion in the eyes of our nurses who keep zipping up body bags, we beg you.”

Lake Regional Health System on Thursday limited emergency room patients to only one support person and now is screening visitors, KRCG-TV reported.

“We need you to get vaccinated now," CEO Dane Henry wrote in an open letter. "If you haven’t already, please roll up your sleeve. Do it to protect yourself, your family and this community. COVID-19 vaccines are safe, free and readily available. Most importantly, they are the best protection against hospitalization and death.”

St. Louis area cases are also creeping up. 

"Our seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases jumped 35% in the last week," St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday. The county currently has 90 hospitalized COVID patients, a number that averaged in the low 20s just weeks ago.

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