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St. Louis Coronavirus Task Force Urges Caution, Optimism During Final Briefing

Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, warned Monday that the region's hospitals are nearing their capacity to care for coronavirus patients and that there are not enough healthcare workers to staff them
File Photo/Bill Greenblatt
Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, has for more than 14 months used livestreamed press briefings to educate residents in the St. Louis region about how to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

As people in the St. Louis region return to public activities following a year of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, health officials are warning everyone to continue taking precautions and to seek the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hospital leaders from the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Monday ended 14 months of weekly livestreamed briefings, citing falling coronavirus cases and hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19.

The decision to stop the livestreamed briefings marks a turning point in the coronavirus pandemic, hospital leaders said. Case counts and hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19 have dropped significantly, and hospitals are now able to manage the pandemic effectively.

“Today the war is not completely over, but the battlefield conditions have improved,” said Dr. Alex Garza, task force commander. “We can effectively manage the risks, we can take the virus seriously, but it doesn’t have to dominate our day-to-day lives.”

The task force comprises leaders from the region’s four largest health care systems: St. Luke’s, BJC HealthCare, Mercy and SSM Health.

The briefings included information on the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to the hospital daily and stories of how the health systems were handling the burden of the pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic in late fall 2020, the region’s hospitals admitted more than 100 people a day. More than a half-year later, fewer than 20 people with the virus usually are admitted each day, a success task force members attribute to the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Think back to this weekend, think of one thing you could do this weekend that you were not able to do over the past year,” said Dr. Aamina Akhtar, chief medical officer at Mercy Hospital South. “That would have not happened a year ago if we had not been vaccinated.”

Task force leaders stressed the importance of continuing to vaccinate people, particularly in Missouri, where about 45% of residents over 18 are fully vaccinated.

Even as doctors were optimistic, they warned against future outbreaks of the coronavirus.

It’s likely the virus will be present for years, said Dr. Clay Dunagan, BJC HealthCare chief clinical officer. Like other coronaviruses and the flu, it will probably circulate more during colder months.

“There is very good reason to believe that’s the pattern we’ll find ourselves in,” Dunagan said. “COVID-19 with all its various manifestations will flourish again in the fall, and many things that we can do right now will prepare us for that likely bump of case rates in the fall.”

Vaccinations are the most effective way to protect against future spikes in cases, he said.

Garza and Dunagan agree that it is unlikely the region will see a huge surge like the one last fall, especially because a large percentage of older and chronically ill residents who are most likely to need hospitalizations have received the vaccine.

The group also used the final briefing to recognize health workers who worked throughout the pandemic.

“These unprecedented challenges called for innovation, courage, selflessness and resilience in the most difficult circumstances,” said Diane Ray, chief nursing officer at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield. “Teams assembled to outline standards for a disease we had never cared for before. Nurses laminated pictures of themselves to clip on their isolation gowns so patients could see their smiling faces.”

During the worst days of the pandemic, health workers were often the only people sitting with patients as they were dying, she said.

“I’ve never been more proud of my profession,” Ray said.

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.