As New York salutes health workers, Missouri fights a surge

New York threw a ticker-tape parade Wednesday for the health care workers and others who helped the city get through the darkest days of COVID-19, while authorities in Missouri struggled to beat back a surge blamed on the fast-spreading delta variant and deep resistance to getting vaccinated.

The split-screen images could be a glimpse of what public health experts say may lie ahead for the U.S. in the coming months: continued progress against the coronavirus overall, but with local outbreaks in corners of the country with low vaccination rates.

“We’ve got a lot to appreciate, because we’re well underway in our recovery. We’ve got a lot to celebrate,” declared New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rode on a parade float with hospital employees along the Canyon of Heroes, the skyscraper-lined stretch of Broadway where astronauts, returning soldiers and championship sports teams are feted.

In Missouri, meanwhile, the Springfield area has been hit so hard that one hospital had to borrow ventilators over the Fourth of July weekend and begged on social media for help from respiratory therapists. Members of a newly formed federal “surge response team” began arriving to help suppress the outbreak.

Missouri not only leads the nation in new cases relative to the population, it is also averaging 1,000 new cases per day — about the same number as the entire Northeast, including major population centers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

California, with 40 million people, is posting only slightly higher case numbers than Missouri, which has a population of 6 million.

Northeastern states have seen cases, deaths and hospitalizations plummet to almost nothing amid widespread acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine. Vermont has gone 26 days with new case numbers in single digits. In Maryland, the governor’s office said every death recorded in June was in an unvaccinated person. New York City regularly goes whole days with no deaths.

The problem, as health experts see it: Just 45% of Missouri’s residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 55% of the U.S. population. Some rural counties near Springfield have vaccination rates in the teens and 20s.

At the same time, the delta variant is fast becoming the predominant strain in the state. Testing of wastewater shows it is spreading from rural areas into more populated places.

Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer of Mercy Hospital Springfield, said staff members are frustrated that “this is preventable this time.”

At the city’s other hospital, Cox South, several patients are in their 20s and 30s, said Ashley Kimberling Casad, vice president of clinical services. She said she had been hopeful when she eyed the COVID-19 numbers in May as she prepared to return from maternity leave.

“I really thought when I came back from maternity leave that, not that COVID would be gone, but that it would just be so manageable. Then all of a sudden it started spiking,” she said, adding that nearly all the virus samples that the hospital is sending for testing are proving to be the delta variant.

Missouri also never had a statewide mask mandate. The sentiment against government intervention is so strong that Brian Steele, mayor of the Springfield suburb of Nixa, is facing a recall vote after imposing a mask rule, even though it has long since expired.

The contrasting scenes in the U.S. came as the worldwide death toll from COVID-19 closed in on 4 million, by Johns Hopkins University’s count.

COVID-19 deaths nationwide are down to around 200 per day from a peak of over 3,400 per day in January.

Meanwhile, 17 people died in the latest two-week reporting period in the county that surrounds Springfield, the most since January. None were vaccinated, officials said.

Back in New York, which was the lethal epicenter of the outbreak in the spring of 2002, the mood was far different Wednesday. Those honored at the parade included nurses and doctors, emergency crews, bus drivers and train operators, teachers and child care providers, and utility workers.

“What a difference a year makes,” said parade grand marshal Sandra Lindsay, a nurse who was the first person in the country to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot.

“Fifteen months ago, we were in a much different place, but thanks to the heroic efforts of so many — health care workers, first responders, front-line workers, the people who fed us, the people who put their lives on the line, we can’t thank them enough.”

The mayor saluted them as “some of the folks who made history in New York City’s toughest hours.”

Justin Davis, a nurse who came from Pittsburgh to work at a New York City hospital during the height of the crisis last year, was excited to be riding in the parade on a float sponsored by the health care staffing company he works for.

“I think it’s just going to be real cool,” Davis said. “And hopefully it can just bring closure.”