SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KMOV/AP) — Missouri now leads the nation with the highest rate of new COVID-19 infections as vaccinations lag. One person in every 1,349 people in the state was diagnosed with COVID-19 from June 13 to Sunday.

12-year-old girl with coronavirus is on a ventilator and fighting for her life

A nurse at a drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing station, set up by the University of Washington Medical Center, holds a swab used to take a sample from the nose of a person in their car, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Seattle. In Georgia, a 12-year-old girl is fighting for her life after testing positive for the virus.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox said the north-central and southwest part of the state are driving the surge. While 53.3% of the population of Americans have initiated vaccination, most southern and northern Missouri counties are well short of 40%.

And a handful of southern Missouri counties have fewer than 20% of residents vaccinated.

This is of particular concern, as the Delta COVID-19 variant has begun to make its way through the state and into more populous areas. It is confirmed to be present in both St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. The Delta variant is more transmissible and leads to a more severe form of the illness, which has health officials urging vaccinations.

Hospital officials in the Springfield, Missouri region reported 86 patients in their ICUs on Friday. All of them had been unvaccinated.

"On a scale of 1-10, right now from a public health perspective, I am at a seven," said Dr. Faisal Khan, St. Louis County's Director of Health. "It is only a matter of time, perhaps a week or two at most, before we begin to see a rise in hospitalizations across the St. Louis region."

Khan stressed that the existing vaccines are effective against the Delta variant, and efforts are underway to target those who are hesitant to receive their dose before it's too late to curb the more severe strain. Whereas mass vaccination sites were the preferred distribution method at the outset of the rollout, officials are now taking a hyper-local approach, even focusing their efforts on specific neighborhoods to get the word out. 

"You can go from mild respiratory discomfort to respiratory distress in less than 12 hours," he said. "Unvaccinated individuals are really gambling with their lives in terms of facing this."

Even if an individual previously contracted COVID-19, the antibodies from that infection would not protect them from variants. 

Khan also said while health departments and hospital systems are doing their best to dispel false information and reach unvaccinated individuals, the effort will require person-to-person interaction on the community level. 

"If there’s one appeal I want to make, please get your shots, but also persuade and enable one other unvaccinated individual to get their shot. That’s the level of involvement it will take to overcome this problem," he said. 

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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