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Hospitals In Missouri And Illinois Could Soon See A Thanksgiving-Fueled Coronavirus Surge

File photo / David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
A worker in the St. Luke's Hospital intensive care unit exits the room of a patient with COVID-19 last week.

Public health officials in Missouri and Illinois are bracing for a surge in coronavirus cases after Thanksgiving gatherings.

Heath experts had cautioned against traditional family dinners and parties for the holiday, as the virus is mostly being spread through small gatherings in private residences.

“We would normally expect coming out of Thanksgiving with a normal incubation period of about five days, that if we were going to see a rebound or surge that would probably come this weekend or early next week,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said Friday.

Illinois state public health officials expect they’ll know the extent of a Thanksgiving surge in coronavirus cases by next week.

St. Louis hospitals have not yet seen a surge in coronavirus admissions, although the average number of hospitalizations remains very high. The region’s hospitals are treating around 900 patients with the virus, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

Because the virus takes days or weeks to incubate and even longer to progress to a serious illness that requires hospitalization, a holiday surge may not be seen until weeks later, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday.

A steep rise in the number of patients could push hospitals to their limits.

Hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19 in Illinois are 14% higher than they were during the first peak in the spring, he said.

“These next four weeks may be the most crucial month of this entire pandemic,” Pritzker said. “We quite literally have very limited leeway in our hospital systems to manage another surge.”

The upcoming holidays of Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa could spread the virus more since they’re times when people typically gather.

“There’s a timeline. The cases happen first. It’s not that people just end up in the hospital, you see a spike in the hospitalizations,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Department of Public Health director. “You’ll see the increase in the cases first, that will then be followed by the hospitalizations.”

The number of new cases appears to be increasing more slowly in the St. Louis region, said Dr. Alex Garza, commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

Over the past week, the bistate metropolitan area has averaged about 2,051 new cases per day. That's an increase of about 20 cases each day from the week before that.

Hospitals have regularly been admitting more than 100 new patients with the coronavirus each day for the past few weeks, but on Saturday they admitted 81.

Garza is reluctant to celebrate the slowdown. Testing sites were likely closed over Thanksgiving, which could be contributing to the lower number of new cases, he said, and admissions are still too high.

“Although the slope has decreased, it’s still on an upward trend,” he said. “I know in talking with some of the health departments that they have seen cases rebound back up to that pre-holiday number. That gives me a little bit of caution that we’re seeing a sustained decrease.”

Health officials will have a better idea of the effects holiday gatherings could have had on disease transmission in the next weeks, Garza said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

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