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As St. Louis Hospitals Reach Capacity, Doctors Plead For Public To Wear Masks

1026_BG_GARZA1 Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, gives his daily media, briefing in Earth City, Missouri on Monday, October 26, 2020.
Bill Greenblatt
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 health care workers to staff them

As hospitals in the St. Louis region are nearing or exceeding their capacity to treat coronavirus patients, health workers and people who have lost loved ones are imploring the public to wear masks and keep their distance from others.

The number of coronavirus patients in the hospitalshas increased in recent weeks. On average, the region’s four largest hospital systems are admitting more than 50 coronavirus patients each day, doctors told reporters Monday during a briefing by the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

Health workers, some visibly shaken, told reporters patients are waiting in emergency rooms for available beds. Doctors, nurses and other hospital staff are overworked and afraid.

“We’re tired, we’ve been working hours and days and nights and what we’re seeing is an influx of patients, we're starting to see our resources being depleted,” said Dr. Aamina Akhtar, an infectious disease physician and chief medical officer at Mercy Hospital South. “We’re frightened, we’re scared of what’s coming. We’re going to reach numbers of patients that are going to exceed our capacity to take care of them. Not our willingness, not our drive. But our capacity.”

Hospitals for months have been planning and freeing up space.

But it doesn’t matter if a hospital has room for 100 patients if there is only enough personnel to care for 10, said Dr. Alex Garza, the task force commander. There simply aren’t enough physicians, nurses or caretakers to treat the hundreds of coronavirus patients showing up at St. Louis hospitals.

“We’re seeing a lot of people that are just, they don’t want to be in the fight anymore,” he said. “And you don’t have any reserves really to backfill them. That just means you’re putting it on the shoulders of the people that are there right now, and that’s completely unfair.”

The next step hospitals likely will need to take is to postpone nonemergency procedures as they did early in the pandemic, to free up more staff to treat patients sick with the virus, Garza said.

Speakers at Monday’s briefing implored Missourians to wear masks and stay home if they can to keep the virus from spreading rapidly and take the strain off hospitals. They were frustrated that many people refuse to wear face coverings and make other sacrifices to help save patients’ lives.

“We as health care professionals understood the science and were trying to help people understand that simple measures, social distancing, washing your hands, wearing a mask, would help keep our COVID numbers down,” Akhtar said. “But unfortunately, not everyone was doing it.”

In the beginning of the pandemic, people rallied behind health workers by sending food, making videos and drawing signs. Akhtar wishes the public would express enthusiasm again and stay home and wear a mask to show support for hospital staff.

One speaker, Jennifer Duffy, held back tears as she pleaded with the public to think of the people who could die if health guidelines are flouted. Her mother died in late September after she was hospitalized with COVID-19.

“What’s harder than the grief of losing her is the state of this world and the disgust that I feel when I see the values she brought us up with — love, respect and kindness — not apparent in the people around us,” Duffy said. “I don’t understand why it’s so hard to sacrifice, to wear a mask, if it can save somebody else like my mother. It’s just too many people hurting right now. I ask myself, how many more?”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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