As COVID-19 cases surge, Missouri says local leaders must lead the fight

Tracking Coronavirus

Nurse Jody Berry draws a syringe full of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at Mother’s Brewing Company in Springfield, Mo., on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. As the U.S. emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, Missouri is becoming a cautionary tale for the rest of the country: It is seeing an alarming rise in cases because of a combination of the fast-spreading delta variant and stubborn resistance among many people to getting vaccinated. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP)

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — 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 residents 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.”

In Kansas City, the health leaders called out groups like Morning Star Baptist Church for its efforts to get people in Kansas City’s inner-city neighborhoods vaccinated.

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.

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.

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.

State leaders said that COVID-19 cases in Eastern Jackson County have jumped 40% in the past week.

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.”

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