The record-setting COVID-19 surge in Missouri springs from Branson, a superspreader tourist town whose visitor policy—to sell lots of tickets and take few precautions—is endangering thousands of lives.
“It’s crazy busy with no mask mandate,” said the person who answered the town’s tourist information line on Thursday.
As the crowds come and go, the infection rate for Branson and surrounding Taney County is 19.3 percent. There are 54 new cases a day in a population of 57,000, which is 10 times the national per capita average. More than two-thirds of the population are unvaccinated, including the very nice tourist information person.
“It’s not happening,” she said when asked if she had gotten the shot. “Have a blessed day.”
These statistics acquire particular significance in a locale that provides what one prominent virologist and epidemiologist terms “prime conditions” for COVID-19 to spread—and all the more so for the highly contagious Delta variant.
“Branson has a lot of country-western shows,” says Dr. Marc Johnson of the University of Missouri School of Medicine. “No Vaccines. No masks. A bunch of people indoors and air conditioning, tightly packed, listening to music, possibly singing along, i.e. a superspreading [event].”
Johnson oversees a statewide program to monitor COVID-19 via wastewater samples, or sewer sheds. He was able to chart the spread of the U.K. Alpha variant in Missouri from urban to rural areas between February and the end of April, when it essentially took over.
“I thought that was really fast,” Johnson said.
Then, on May 10, his lab received what he calls “the Branson sample” from one of the town’s two sewer sheds. The RNA test results identified the state’s first confirmed appearance of what would become known as the Delta variant, which originated in India.
The Delta variant showed up in Branson’s other sewer shed the following week. And then it began popping up in samples from a number of small Missouri towns. The state’s cities were next.
“By week three, it was already pretty much everywhere,” he said.
The last sample from anywhere in Missouri that did not contain the Delta variant was on June 7. The entire state had been engulfed by Delta in a quarter of the time it had taken the Alpha variant to sweep Missouri. But while the Alpha spread was not accompanied by a marked uptick in infections, Delta was followed by a spike in cases within three weeks, wherever it appeared.
“It’s pretty scary,” Johnson said.
And the sewer shed samples show it started in Branson.
“I don’t know that the Branson is what seeded the entire outbreak in Missouri,” Johnson said. “But I always suspected.”
He figures the spread across the state was mostly the result of people making trips to Branson and perhaps another tourist area nearby. But he can only guess because the other area, Lake of the Ozarks, has declined to submit sewer samples.
“They probably didn’t think it would be good for business,” he said.
Word of Delta’s arrival did not hamper Branson’s booming business. And business seems to have been only boosted when an adamant opponent of both mask and vaccine mandates was elected the new mayor in April.
The explosive growth of the Delta variant may be scaring a growing list of conservative politicians into suddenly urging people to get vaccinated. But not Branson Mayor Larry Milton, who has continued to proclaim reckless idiocy even as his town keeps spreading the virus. He cheerfully hosted a gathering of 27,000 for the Fourth of July. And he issued a statement nine days later that seemed to essentially guarantee his town would remain a virus sanctuary.
“First, let me state clearly and for the record: I will not support another government mask mandate, nor will I support a vaccine mandate,” he declared. “I didn’t talk about freedom and liberty during my campaign for Mayor simply as a way to get elected. I championed those values then, as I do now, because I believe that each individual should have the right to decide for themselves how to best handle their own medical decisions.”
He added, “I DO NOT believe it’s my place, or the place of any politician, to endorse, promote or compel any person to get any vaccine. That’s a decision that should be made by each individual in consultation with their doctor and their family.”
He closed by saying, “Be good to one another. Be good to those who visit our town. Don’t let temporary disagreements drive us apart forever. Whether you are masked or not, vaccinated or not, make smart decisions… Be aware of those around you who may think differently than you do about the issue. Be courteous, be thoughtful, be Branson.”
The problem is that those who do not get the shot are endangering everybody, most particularly in a town where there is no mask mandate. Individual attractions were at liberty to continue requiring masks, but most are not. That includes Branson’s Famous Baldknobbers Show.
“We don’t have a requirement at this time but with the Delta variant we recommend,” a box office person at the popular country music and comedy show said.
No requirement even though a longtime Baldknobbers guitarist named Randy McConnell died from COVID-19 on July 18. Those who grieved McConnell’s death included longtime Branson resident Debbie Wood, who herself fell seriously ill with COVID-19 after deciding the vaccine was too much of a risk.
“They didn’t know if I was going to make it,” she reported in a testament posted by CoxHealth, southwest Missouri’s premiere medical system. “I went to the ER and had the antibody transfusion. But even that did not help me feel better. They sent me home to rest as there were no beds available anywhere near Branson.”
Her 87-year-old mother was also hit by the virus. Both survived after a tough fight.
“People honestly don’t know how bad this is until you get it,” Wood wrote in her testament. “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not getting the vaccine’ until you're the one who almost doesn’t make it.”
She added, “I don’t ever want to put anyone at risk again for the choice I made not getting the vaccine.”
Taney County’s daily case count is up 69 percent from two weeks ago. The ICU in Branson is at 99 percent capacity. And CoxHealth CEO Steve Edward expects the numbers to keep rising until at least mid-August.
“We are at an all-time record high,” Edwards told The Daily Beast. “We have not peaked.”
He said CoxHealth had been counting on placing the overflow of patients in less-burdened hospitals when the cases peaked, but now everybody is getting hit.
“Now we’re preparing for the very real scenario where there’s nowhere to go,” he said. “We’re just going to get hunkered down and take care of everybody we can.”
He noted that the Taney County statistics do not include vacationers who become infected in Branson, but do not become ill until after they leave.
“We don’t know how many visits and might require hospitalization in other areas,” he said.
The Branson mayor’s office and the county health department did not respond to a request for comment. Business keeps booming and superspreading continues and the virus threat looms at enterprises such as the Titanic Museum Attraction. Visitors there can dispense with masks, and the unvaccinated can place themselves at serious risk while imagining those who perished long ago for want of a lifeboat.
“Our crew members wear them, but it’s up to you,” the ticket office said on Thursday.