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‘The pandemic right now is winning.’ St. Louis hospitals are being pushed to their limits

Travel nurse Stacey Solomon, of Lake City, Fla., administers a COVID-19 test to Michael Failoni, 29, of Edwardsville, on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, at a testing site in Grand Center. Solomon estimates they have given from 500 to 1,000 COVID-19 tests a day as the country sees a surge of COVID-19 cases with the omicron variant.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Travel nurse Stacey Solomon, of Lake City, Fla., administers a COVID-19 test to Michael Failoni, 29, of Edwardsville, on Monday at a testing site in Grand Center. Solomon estimates health care workers have given as many as 1,000 coronavirus tests a day as the nation sees a surge of the omicron variant.

St. Louis hospitals are canceling procedures, shuffling an overburdened workforce and pleading with the public to wear masks and get vaccinated as they fill with patients with COVID-19.

During a Wednesday briefing of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, representatives from the region’s four largest health systems said they were canceling elective procedures to free up workers to help with treating record numbers of COVID-19 patients.

More than 1,100 people are hospitalized with the disease in area hospitals, a striking new record that officials only predict will get worse as coronavirus case numbers climb throughout the St Louis region.

“This is the nightmare scenario we feared, when we couldn’t choke off the virus last year,” said Dr. Alex Garza, co-leader of the task force and SSM community health officer. “To put it quite bluntly, the pandemic right now is winning.”

BJC Healthcare on Wednesday morning was first to announce it would postpone all non-urgent procedures such as cancer screenings. Officials from SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s hospitals said they also are canceling some procedures and would likely announce similar policies soon.

The influx of COVID-19 patients is made more challenging as more health workers test positive for the coronavirus. Many hospital employees are also not able to work as they take care of sick family members or help families with virtual learning, said Dr. Aamina Akhtar, chief medical officer at Mercy Hospital South.

About 1,000 of BJC Healthcare’s 31,000 workers are unable to work because they’re sick or have been exposed to the virus, said Dr. Clay Dungan, task force co-leader and BJC chief clinical officer.

At Mercy hospitals, “three to four times” the number of staff are unable to work compared with earlier in the pandemic, Akhtar said. Respiratory therapists, nurses or doctors sometimes will have to go home in the middle of a shift after they start to feel sick, she said.

As a result, patients are needing to wait longer for care at area hospitals. Some patients may need to wait hours or even days in a hallway or emergency department room until a hospital bed becomes available, she said.

Hospitals are shuffling employees to other departments to clean rooms, take blood and run prescriptions, even if they don’t usually work as clinical workers, she said.

“We’re asking people to get out of their comfort zone,” Akhtar said. “We’re using everything we have in our capabilities in our hospital systems to support the surge of patients that are coming at us.”

Hospital leaders say a lack of comprehensive public policies, including mask mandates, is contributing to the rise in cases and hospitalized patients.

Task Force leaders are urging the community to get vaccinated or get booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine if they haven’t already, to wear quality masks indoors and to postpone gatherings to help keep hospitals functioning.

"Behind the scenes we’re panicked,” Garza said. “We need the entire community to be helping us out."

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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