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Dr. Alex Garza hopes St. Louis can learn from the military’s COVID response

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 healthcare workers to staff them
Bill Greenblatt
Dr. Alex Garza, co-leader of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, during a coronavirus media briefing in 2020.

Dr. Alex Garza left for his Army deployment in Kuwait on a hopeful note.

Joking on St. Louis on the Air before leaving, he said he’d given his staff “strict instructions that I want the pandemic to be over by the time I return.”

Four months and another variant later, that didn’t happen. Instead, Garza came back to Missouri in November during an uptick in cases and the emergence of the omicron strain.

“It really was my hope to come back to St. Louis and have this mostly contained and be more of an endemic disease, more so than what we're dealing with right now,” he said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Now, after three months in Kuwait, Garza is back and ready to jump into action co-leading the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force — this time armed with lessons he learned overseas.

While stationed as an emergency physician on a U.S. base, the St. Louis-based physician witnessed the base successfully control a coronavirus outbreak using tried-and-true methods like masking and quarantines. Kuwait, Garza said, offered “an ideal real-life laboratory on how you could judge the effectiveness of public health measures.”

When Garza, a colonel in the Army Reserve, first arrived at Camp Arifjan, a couple of hundred people were in isolation. By the time he left, only a handful were in isolation, 90% of the base was vaccinated, and case counts were so low that officials were able to rescind their earlier mask mandate.

That’s proof enough for Garza.

“We've been at this for almost two years, so we know these public health measures work and vaccination works,” Garza said. “Now it's really just a choice of all of us to do those things to get us out of the pandemic.”

As for the omicron variant, Garza said he isn’t banking on it being milder than other strains.

“From a planning perspective, I think we have to plan on it being as equally severe as delta. And then if it doesn't turn out that way, that's great,” he said. “But, I think that's still an unanswered question right now.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.