ST. LOUIS, Mo. – A frustrated St Louis Metropolitan Task Force provided St. Louis with another COVID update today and painted a rather grim picture, warning the region could return to its worst pandemic levels by the beginning of the new year.  Task Force Doctors Alex Garza of the SSM Healthcare Systems and Dr. Clay Dunagan of the BJC Healthcare system jointly addressed the surging numbers in an afternoon briefing posted to the Task Force’s Facebook page. 

The Task Force released a statement encouraging everyone in the community to wear masks when indoors, regardless of vaccination status. It says the virus is currently circulating at significant levels we have not seen in months.

Dr. Garza, who last took part in a briefing in July before heading off for military duty in Kuwait, was clearly frustrated with the lack of progress since he left.  

“I’m literally disappointed to tell you we are once again losing ground to the virus.  The number of people within our region who are hospitalized with COVID is increasing, the number of people in ICU’s is increasing, and the number of people on ventilators is increasing.  And quite frankly, the number of people who are becoming vaccinated is not increasing.”, said Garza.  He added, “As a region, we’re really moving in the wrong direction.  The virus is winning this round because of that highly contagious Delta variant.”

The latest numbers from Task Force hospitals show little reason for optimism.  Hospitalizations in this winter surge of cases are moving back to the worst of the summer delta surge numbers.  Dr. Dunagan said the reproduction number of the disease in the St. Louis region is now at 1.14, indicating the virus is again spreading. 

Medical officials have said since the beginning of the pandemic that the reproduction number, or amount of additional people an infected person might infect, needs to be below 1 in order for the pandemic to wane.  At 1.14, each COVID-positive patient is spreading the disease to more than one additional person and the surge takes off.  Doctors Garza and Dunagan said this is what is happening now in St. Louis. 

Dr. Dunagan also cautioned about the current situation with COVID deaths in local hospitals. 

“Suddenly we’re back into a surge, and one that looks as potent as the last one”, he said.  “Once again we see mortality rising in the region.  We’re up to a seven-day moving average of about eight cases a day.  So, it’s really pretty extraordinary when you think about it, that nearly sixty people are dying a week still from COVID in our region.”

Both doctors are concerned about the future and the coming months.  Dr. Garza warned of the impact on everyone in the community and intimated hospital services to non-COVID patients could once again become impacted. 

“Because of this dramatic increase in cases, healthcare workers have been battered over the past year and a half and are again bracing for the coming deluge of patients and deciding which healthcare services we should stop doing to take care of these incredibly sick patients… and patients are stacking up in emergency departments because there is no room in the hospitals.”, Dr. Garza warned.  

Hospitalization numbers collected by the Task Force indicate the majority of patients being treated right now are among the unvaccinated in our community. 

“What this is telling us is that the surges are really being driven by the unvaccinated.  And it’s also telling us—if you look carefully at the numbers—is that being vaccinated is still tremendously protective against being hospitalized,” said Dr. Dunagan.

The doctors believe the data collected to this point have indicated there’s much more trouble brewing.  Last winter, hospitalization numbers in November and December reached patient levels above 1,000 people as the region struggled to fight the virus without widescale vaccinations available.  Those numbers decreased in the spring as vaccinations became readily available and lead to decreases inpatient levels. 

Dr. Garza warns the delta surge and eventual emergence of the omicron variant could send numbers this winter right back to the highest levels felt during the pandemic. “If the virus continues to circulate like it currently is in our community, and if we can’t decrease the number of new people becoming infected, then this model will predict that these numbers will continue to climb, that we will see more and more people admitted to the hospital. If you follow the model out for the next couple of weeks you’ll see that we’ll reach a peak that is equivalent to last year in our worst-case scenario by the first week of January”, Dr. Garza said. 

In the most recent hospitalization numbers released today, the region has seen increases in most categories that cause concern.  There are now 123 patients in ICU beds in the region, a number our region hasn’t seen since late September.  That’s also an increase of 11 patients in the last 24 hours.  The number of patients requiring ventilator care has also jumped with 81 hospitalized patients now requiring that help breathing. 

And for the first time since mid-September, the St. Louis region has again seen a troubling jump in pediatric COVID cases.  This comes at a time when many area school districts are announcing relaxation of masking rules and going mask optional when they return after the holiday break.  The Task Force reported Monday that 21 children were hospitalized.  It’s the highest number of pediatric hospitalizations since the third week of September.  By Tuesday, the number of hospitalizations had grown to 24 children.

Of the 21 children being treated, three of them are in ICU beds.  That’s the highest number of kids getting critical care in nearly a month.   The total hospitalizations include eight children under the age of 11 getting care, and thirteen children between 12-18 years receiving treatment.