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Why America’s ‘unhealthy population’ is at greater risk for the next pandemic

Dr. Alexander Garza
Emily Woodbury
Dr. Alexander Garza is chief community health officer at SSM Health.

Whether it's COVID-19, influenza or RSV, it seems like a lot of people are getting sick lately. But for the first time in recent years, this winter has seen a relatively normal flu season.

“The [COVID-19] virus isn't as virulent as it was in the past. Even though it seems like everybody's getting COVID, now there's fewer people needing to come to the hospital,” said Dr. Alexander Garza, chief community health officer at SSM Health.

Garza added that influenza counts have peaked and are beginning to fall — “and the same thing with RSV,” respiratory syncytial virus.

“This is really no different than respiratory seasons that we've had before. We're probably a little bit more in tune with it now just because of the last four years where we recognize that there are specific things that we can do to reduce our risk to both individuals and to the community,” he said.

Garza, who served as the commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force throughout the pandemic, joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss major takeaways from the acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic, how pandemics and wars have a “tremendous amount in common,” and the extent to which institutions — and the general public — are ready for the next pandemic.

“I think we're better prepared now than we were before the COVID-19 pandemic, [but] we have a fairly unhealthy population,” he said. “If you look at statistics from around the globe, especially from economically developed countries, the U.S. isn't faring so well. We have a lot of chronic conditions — diabetes, heart disease, obesity.”

Institutions, Garza added, would benefit from focusing less on health care and more on improving social resources.

“We spend a lot of money on health care, and we have a fairly unhealthy population,” he said. “Jobs, education, access to health care, better food, better transportation — all of those things really create health in the community. … That's where we have a lot of ground to make up, in trying to create communities that would be better able to withstand the next pandemic.”

Listen to the conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Dr. Alex Garza joins "St. Louis on the Air"

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 produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.