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story.lead_photo.caption Crowds of people gather at Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar & Grill in Gravois Mills, Missouri, Sunday, May 24, 2020. Several beach bars along Lake of the Ozarks were packed with party-goers during the Memorial Day weekend. Several political leaders in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, as well as the state of Kansas' health secretary, have condemned Lake of the Ozarks revelers for failing to practice social distancing, amid fears they could return to areas hard hit by the coronavirus and spread the disease. (Shelly Yang/Kansas City Star via AP)

Although the number of new cases of COVID-19 is increasing in Missouri at an alarming rate, the rate of deaths from the disease has declined, according to a report from the Missouri Hospital Association.

"Missouri's extreme growth in cases, and concurrent reductions in both hospitalization and mortality can be largely explained by the age distribution of new cases in the state," the MHA report found.

Specifically, the report shows that in mid-April, when about 10 COVID-19 patients died in the state daily, the average age of patients with new cases was 56, MHA President and CEO Herb Kuhn said.

"By June 20, the average age had dropped to 38," Kuhn said in a news release. "Because younger Missourians are more likely to be asymptomatic or avoid the worse effects of the disease, they have a special responsibility to safeguard others."

Health officials assumed early on that there were certain populations more vulnerable to the virus than others, said Dave Dillon, MHA vice president of public and media relations.

Early research showed older people and people with underlying health conditions were more likely to have serious or fatal symptoms from the disease.

"Precautions needed to be taken for them," Dillon said.

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Compared to people younger than 50, people in their 60s are five times as likely to die from the disease, according to the MHA report. People in their 70s are 8.5 times as likely to die from COVID-19. People 80 and older are 11 times more likely.

As a state, we have seen a significant shift in where COVID-19 is becoming predominant, Dillon said.

During the first week of March, Missourians younger than 45 years old made up just 23 percent of COVID-19 cases in the state. By the end of June, they made up about 63 percent of new cases.

In Missouri, people younger than 45 make up 57 percent of the population, the report notes. Although they are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 by returning to work or participating in social events, they are also less likely to have serious symptoms, if any, when they contract the virus.

Their youth is a "strong protective factor — they're typically without underlying co-morbid risk factors, such as diabetes or heart and pulmonary disease, which lends resilience to fight off secondary lung infections," the report says.

However, they are also much more likely to be asymptomatic, which makes them more likely to unintentionally share the virus with at-risk acquaintances or family members.

"We now know that a number of people may have the virus and be asymptomatic. If you don't know that you've got the virus, you're walking around infecting other people," Dillon said. "Younger people need to be part of the solution."

The virus' spread is picking up pace in Missouri. In mid-June, the rate of spread was less than one, meaning each person infected spread it to less than one person on average.

By the end of June, each infected person, on average, had infected 1.4 other people.

The state, so far, has done a good job of "flattening the curve," or keeping the number of cases from expanding rapidly, Dillon said.

Numbers have ticked up since the state "reopened."

"At some point, the more open you are and the less restrictions there are, the greater the chance of individuals being exposed," he said.

While early state "hotspots" in St. Louis and Kansas City are controlled, cities like Springfield, Joplin and Cape Girardeau are seeing growth in COVID-19 numbers.

Every day, the state sees an upward progression in hospitalizations.

However, since the federal government changed the platform for reporting cases, data about the numbers hasn't been available, Dillon said. Before that, health officials watched as the numbers climbed daily, he said.

"We're kind of in the dark," he said. "We don't know exactly where we are."

No one wants to go back to stay-at-home orders. What we know is that we can slow the spread of the infection by wearing masks and avoiding groups, Dillon said.

A number of large retailers have implemented policies requiring people in their facilities to wear face masks.

"Many of the big retailers are going to lead the way on this," Dillon said. "You're not going to be able to go to Walmart, you're not going to be able to go to Target without wearing a mask. When it's in your car and you put it on every time you walk in, once it's acceptable, people will be more comfortable with it."

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