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As Region Surpasses 1,500 Covid Deaths, St. Louis Doctors Warn Pandemic Will Likely Last Through 2021

Nurse Michelle Radomski finishes giving someone a coronavirus nasal swab test at Affinia Healthcare's Broadway location on July 13. 7/13/20
File photo | Kayla Drake | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Affinia nurse Michelle Radomski conducts a nasal swab test earlier this summer. Doctors warn the pandemic could last until at least the end of 2021.

As the coronavirus death count in the St. Louis area surpasses 1,500, doctors are telling residents to brace for at least another year of living with the disease.

As of Sunday, the bistate region has seen more than 50,000 cases of the coronavirus since the first person tested positive in March. Doctors say that they’ve become better at treating cases of COVID-19 and preventing its spread, but that life will not go back to a pre-pandemic “normal” until at least the end of 2021.

“We’re in a better position because we understand more about the virus,” said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. “We understand more about how it’s transmitted, how to protect ourselves, how to mitigate risk, and then what populations are most at risk.”

The percentage of sick people who are killed by the disease is lower than it was in early spring, he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, cases were breaking out in nursing homesand other crowded spaces, such as meatpacking plants. Now, people know more about avoiding and protecting themselves in crowded spaces and other high-risk environments. More people are wearing masks, visitors are restricted at nursing homes, and more people are being tested, Garza said.

“I look at our case counts and hospitalization numbers, and they seem to have stabilized as well,” Garza said.

As of Sept. 12, an average of 34 people with the coronavirus are being admitted to the region’s four largest hospital systems each day, according to task force numbers.

Public health experts have long warned that cases and deaths could rise as cold weather brings more people indoors, where the risk of viral spread is higher. Children returning to in-person school also could drive infections, said Enbal Shacham, a professor of public health at St. Louis University.

“I think it’s going to be more [a question of] ‘What are the plans for testing?’” Shacham said. “And then complications when the flu season starts, and what we won’t be able to tell is what cases are flu and what cases are COVID. I think that’s going to be challenging.”

The 54,424 cases recorded in the St. Louis region are a discouraging sign that the government could do more to protect people, she said. While St. Louis and St. Louis County have put in place mask ordinances,youth sports restrictions and other rules to control the spread of the virus, surrounding counties have not.

Universal policies, instead of patchwork ordinances, would better prevent the spread, Shacham said.

“Those ordinances work to reduce the speed of the infection growth, and it’s not enough,” she said. “We still have people who are interacting beyond those boundaries.”

Both Garza and Shacham say they agree with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who told reporters last week the world will need to live with the coronavirusthrough at least the end of 2021.

“When we feel comfortable enough to say [it’s over] is the real question,” Garza said. “Is it when we’ve gotten through a large public vaccination program? Maybe. By the time that production and shipping and getting shots in arms will take us through a significant part of 2021. How fast that means is hard to say.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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