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St. Louis officials sound the alarm as coronavirus cases climb to new heights

A hospital worker rolls equipment through the intensive care
Courtesy Erin Jones
Barnes-Jewish Hospital
Hospital officials say health systems are less equipped to deal with patient surges as the omicron variant of the coronavirus moves into Missouri.

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus becomes more prevalent in Missouri and hospitals brace for more COVID-19 patients, health officials are sounding the alarm.

The number of people testing positive for the virus in St. Louis has more than tripled since last month, St. Louis health officials said Wednesday. More than 14% of coronavirus tests are coming back positive, they said. Health officials want to see the rate fall below 5%.

“These trends are alarming, especially when we know the actual numbers may be higher, as many people have the disease asymptomatically and others are not getting tested,” Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, St. Louis health director, said in a statement. “In order to turn these trends around it’s important that we focus on the proven successful mitigation measures that have been emphasized throughout the pandemic.”

The tried-and-true methods of testing, wearing a mask indoors and social distancing, along with getting vaccinated and boosted against the virus, are the best ways to keep cases down, she said.

The city’s daily average number of new cases has not been so high since the peak of November 2020, according to city data.

Meanwhile, St. Louis-area hospitals are admitting more than 100 patients with COVID-19 a day. The number of admissions is fast approaching the level it was at its highest point just over a year ago, when hospitals admitted around 140 COVID-19 patients daily.

Since the start of the pandemic, about 16,000 Missourians have died of COVID-19.

The combination of holiday travel, gatherings and the omicron variant is adding to the increase in cases, doctors said.

The omicron variant is highly transmissible. Officials from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services this week announced the variant is fast supplanting the delta strain of the virus, which has been prevalent in the state since summer. More than half of samples researchers collected earlier this month contained the omicron variant.

Early research shows the omicron variant may not be as deadly as other types of the coronavirus.

But hospitals will continue to admit more people as the new variant continues to spread, said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

“With omicron, you may be less sick,” Garza said. “But if you’re infecting more people, there’s still going to be a percentage of people who are sick enough to go to the hospital. So you’re trading one thing off for another.”

Unvaccinated patients still make up around 75% of those who are admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, he said.

However, fewer people who get COVID-19 are dying in Missouri. That’s because many have been vaccinated and hospitals have improved treatment, Garza said.

Unlike last year, hospitals have fewer resources to manage a swell of coronavirus patients, he said. Health systems don’t have as many people to work as they did in 2020.

“We sort of had that problem last year, but it’s exacerbated more this year. Even getting help from staffing agencies is very difficult now,” he said.

On Wednesday, BJC Healthcare announced it was again restricting visitors in its inpatient units to stem the spread of the virus. Hospital officials also warned city residents to avoid emergency rooms if they aren’t sick, as many departments are swamped with patients requesting coronavirus tests.

“The decision to reduce visitors was not made lightly, and reflects the serious challenge we face in mitigating the virus spread and maintaining safety throughout this current surge,” BJC officials said in a press release.

Health care workers, particularly nurses, are leaving their jobs due to burnout or pursuit of more lucrative positions as travel staff, he said. Workers are also more susceptible to catching the virus, even if they’ve been vaccinated, and many are becoming sick and unable to come into work.

Eventually the population will reach herd immunity, through vaccinations or natural infections, Garza said.

“Whether omicron blows through the population and infects enough people to build up an immune response that’s enough, I think that remains to be seen,” he said. “But all pandemics come to an end, they do!”

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