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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this June 13, 2021, file photo, a Silver Dollar City employee takes the temperature of guests before they are allowed to enter the park just west of Branson, Mo. Missouri's health department is reporting the highest daily count of new COVID-19 cases since the dead of winter, and the association representing the state's hospital has warned that the health care system is potentially on the brink of a crisis. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP, File)

 Missouri's health department on Thursday reported the highest daily count of new COVID-19 cases since the dead of winter, and the association representing the state's hospital is warning that the health care system is potentially on the brink of a crisis.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services cited 2,302 newly confirmed cases of the virus, the largest one-day count since mid-January, as the delta variant continues to spread in a state with one of the nation's lowest vaccination rates. Hospitalizations ticked up statewide by 47 to 1,331, as did the number of patients in intensive care units, rising by 19 to 409.

Nearly half of the ICU patients — 196 — are hospitalized in southwestern Missouri. Greene County and Springfield leaders are asking the state to fund an alternative care site since hospitals in Springfield are near capacity. State health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said officials in the agency "are identifying available resources and options to meet the needs of our southwest communities, including matching resources to the request we received yesterday evening from Springfield."

The Missouri Hospital Association, in its weekly COVID-19 update, called the situation in southwestern Missouri "dire" and said signals for the rest of Missouri are "foreboding." Statewide, hospitalizations are up 112% from late May lows, though still far below the winter peak of nearly 3,000.

But at least one hospital, Mercy Springfield, was reporting pandemic high numbers of hospitalizations. Erik Frederick, the hospital's chief administrative officer, wrote on Twitter Thursday that there had been 16 deaths so far this week.

Ashley Kimberling Casad, vice president of clinical services at Cox South Hospital in Springfield, said the hospital was less equipped to handle a surge now. One reason is that it has fewer traveling nurses and is finding it harder to hire them. Also, summer is a busy time for elective surgeries.

The hospital association said hospitalizations in southwestern Missouri could exceed winter highs within days.

"If the rest of the state follows current trajectories — with delta systematically picking off localized pockets of unvaccinated Missourians — our entire health care system will be very near the brink it flirted with during the winter of 2020-2021," the update stated.

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