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Coronavirus transmission rises in Missouri but not cause for great concern, doctors say

Experts say that because the population has built up significant immunity because of infections and vaccines, there are much fewer coronavirus-related hospitalizations than there were in the past.
Hannah Barczyk
Special to NPR
Experts say that because the population has built up significant immunity through infections and vaccines, there are many fewer coronavirus-related hospitalizations than there were in the past.

A growing number of people are testing positive for the coronavirus, but Missouri scientists say the virus still poses a smaller threat to residents than during the height of the pandemic.

Coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Missouri — a key way to measure how the virus is spreading now that positive cases are not consistently reported — rose 6% in early August from the week before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Illinois, the number of new hospitalizations rose more than 25% during that same period.

But because hospitalizations have been so low in recent months, there were still only 126 new hospital admissions across the state who tested positive for COVID-19, the CDC reports.

“We're seeing a slight increase, but you have to remember that we're starting at a very low level as well,” said Dr. Alex Garza, SSM Health’s community health officer. “If you look at it over time, we’re one of the lowest levels that we've ever been in for COVID right now.”

Though the virus is spreading more nationwide, people aren’t getting as sick, thanks to built-up immunity for vaccinations and prior infections, said Garza, who served as head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

“It's certainly highly transmissible, but it's not causing that severe disease [as much],” he said, adding that the probability of a surge in hospitalized COVID-19 patients “is much, much lower than we’ve been in the past.”

Coronavirus levels in the state’s wastewater are also increasing slightly but remaining at historically low levels, said Marc Johnson, a University of Missouri biology professor whose lab analyzes samples for the statewide coronavirus surveillance project.

“There's been a modest increase over the last few weeks, and a few little spikes here and there,” Johnson said. “But overall, we're still at one of the lowest levels we've been in the pandemic.”

Now that the federal public health emergency declaration has expired, fewer people can receive free coronavirus tests. Wastewater surveillance is one of the most reliable waysto measure how much virus is spreading, scientists say.

“The amount that people are paying attention to COVID in general is very low, but the fraction of their attention going to wastewater is the highest it's been,” Johnson said.

Wastewater surveillance is uncovering several coronavirus variants, he said, but has not yet shown one that concerns him: a highly mutated version of the virus spotted in Denmark, Israel and Michigan that he thinks could be resistant to vaccines.

An updated version of the coronavirus vaccine is expected to be released this fall.

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