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St. Louis hospitals expect record spike in COVID-19 patients to get worse

Emma Seitz, 23, of the Central West End, receives a COVID-19 test on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, in Grand Center. The testing site is open to the public and is run with support from the Kranzberg Arts Foundation and Grand Center, Inc.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Emma Seitz, 23, of the Central West End, receives a coronavirus test Monday in Grand Center. St. Louis-area hospitals are reporting unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 patients as new cases hit record highs.

Updated Jan. 4 with the latest task force data

Hospitals in the St. Louis region are scrambling to treat patients as they admit record numbers of people with COVID-19.

According to data from the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, health workers are treating more than 1,020 people with COVID-19 inside St. Louis hospitals, the highest number of inpatient hospitalizations since the pandemic began. The task force reported 61 patients 18 and younger are hospitalized with the disease.

On both New Year’s Eve and New Year's Day, area hospitals admitted 188 COVID-19 patients daily, another record.

Hospital officials expect the number of patients will likely double in weeks to come.

Inside hospitals, “it feels more frantic,” said Dr. Clay Dunagan, co-leader of the task force. “The rise has been so rapid. We've really gone up to numbers that we haven't seen before, in a much shorter period of time, so people are scrambling to keep up.”

Spikes in cases and hospitalizations have previously grown slowly, as with the surge in November 2020. But the fast-spreading omicron variant likely has spurred a sharp increase in transmission that blindsided hospitals, doctors said.

Cases are up more than 200% in the past 14 days, according to data compiled by the New York Times. Nearly 113,000 people are in the hospital with COVID-19nationwide, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports.

More than 5,000 Missouri residents are testing positive for the virus daily, up 70% from two weeks before. New daily reported cases are hitting record highs in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Until the number of new cases begins to decline, hospitals will continue to see more patients, Dunagan said.

“We know that the hospitalization rates won't start to turn down for at least a week to 10 days after the case rates in the region start to go down,” he said. “And that hasn't happened yet. So in the best possible case, we've got at least a couple more weeks of skyrocketing numbers.

“This looks like it will be worse than any surge we've seen so far,” Dunagan said.

COVID-19 patients comprise nearly 20% of patients hospitalized by the four largest health systems in the St. Louis region.

Many health care workers, even those who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, are getting sick with the omicron variant, Dunagan said. That means hospitals are facing increasing numbers of new patients with fewer nurses, doctors and other staff members than last year.

If cases continue to rise, the health systems likely will need to postpone or cancel elective procedures and patients will probably have to wait longer to get medical care, he said.

Researchers are still studying how the omicron variant compares to earlier strains of the virus, but early evidence suggests the new form of the virus may cause fewer serious health problems than the previously widespread delta variant.

However, because the omicron variant spreads so quickly and easily, more people are getting sick, and some of those people will end up in the hospital, doctors say.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to end a state of emergency order could affect patient care during the pandemic, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Monday.

The state of emergency had temporarily waived certain regulations to help alleviate health care worker shortages, eased some licensing requirements and expanded the use of telemedicine.

The staffing issues at hospitals and clinics are also leading to bottlenecks in testing availability, Page said. Area residents have reported difficulties finding both retail rapid tests and testing appointments at clinics.

“This is the worst we've ever been in the number of cases and the positivity rate in the pandemic,” Page said. “I don't see this getting better in the next week or two.”

Doctors with the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force have also criticized Parson’s decision not to renew the emergency order, saying it will make it harder to care for sick patients.

Parson has said the state of emergency is no longer needed due to the effectiveness of vaccines and widespread efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Shahla Farzan contributed to this report.

Follow Sarah on Twitter@petit_smudge

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