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ST. LOUIS – The surge of the omicron variant in the St. Louis region has pushed the medical community to the brink and left few with answers on stemming the tidal wave of infections that seems to have no end in sight.

For the first time in the history of the pandemic, more than a thousand people are hospitalized with positive COVID tests, and another 59 patients are presumed to have the virus. In all, 1,082 people are hospitalized after another 176 patients were admitted overnight. 

The surge has many asking how many hospitalizations could be possible if the spread of the omicron variant is not curbed in the region. 

Dr. Alex Garza, commander of the St Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, would not speculate how high the numbers could rise but cautioned the region is in a critical stage of the pandemic.

“We know it will go higher; the question is the magnitude. The slope we are on right now is the worst it has been since the pandemic started and is unsustainable. And at some point, however, there just won’t be enough fuel to continue the fire; that is unvaccinated people that get sick enough to require hospitalization. We just don’t know when that point will arrive,” he said.

“I really can’t speculate on total admissions by mid-January, however, I would say that if we continue on this trend, our models are predicting well above a thousand patients. The total admissions in a couple of weeks will depend on what people are doing now. If we can get a majority of people to wear masks and limit their exposures out in public and continue to get vaccinated, then we have a chance to flatten the curve.” 

The task force—which is made up locally of the SSM, BJC, Mercy, and St. Luke’s health care systems—released the latest hospitalization figures Tuesday afternoon. Those numbers paint a bleak picture.

Some records have been set in many critical metrics measured by the task force, such as hospitalizations, ICU beds in use, ventilators in use, admissions, and deaths. 

Aside from the 1,082 patients now hospitalized, the task force is reporting 178 patients in ICU beds receiving critical care and another 111 patients are requiring ventilators to breathe. High points in those areas during the pandemic came early in 2020, when elderly and nursing home residents were hardest hit. In April 2020, 239 patients needed ICU care and another 186 needed ventilators. The latest surge would indicate those records might be broken if admissions to hospitals continue to rise. 

Dr. Marya Strand, chief medical officer at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, says doctors and nurses are caring for an unprecedented number of COVID-infected children. She says the surge is likely to get worse.

“I think ‘unprecedented’ is a good word and, again, it very much mirrors what’s happening in the adult hospitals around the region,” she said.

Dr. Strand says 15 children with COVID are currently at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. Some have mild symptoms and some have serious respiratory problems. They range in age from newborns to teenagers.

“A lot of moms are coming in to deliver are COVID positive and so we’re dealing with newborns delivered to COVID-positive moms, all the way up into teenagers that are drifting up to the adult ranges,” Strand said.

The task force is reporting two new, dubious records with pediatric COVID cases. Tuesday’s report includes 61 children now hospitalized, a new single-day record for pediatric cases. Of those, 14 are requiring ICU care. That is also the most ever children needing critical care during the pandemic. Of those 14 pediatric ICU patients, 11 of them are children under the age of 11. When asked about the surge of pediatric cases, Garza pointed toward vaccinations. 

“The increase in pediatric cases is most likely due to the increased amount of virus circulating.  As a proportion of total hospitalizations, it is stable, but the absolute number is increasing significantly, which is the number that matters,” he said. “Unvaccinated kids are most at-risk, along with those with compromised immune systems.”

To further emphasize its assertion—made throughout the last year—that vaccinations are an effective tool against the spread of COVID-19, the task force also confirmed today startling new statistics.

Of today’s 1,023 COVID-positive hospitalizations, just 281 patients—or 29% of the total patients—are vaccinated in some form. However, the task force confirmed that of those 281 patients, 98% of them did not receive a booster shot. The task force argues this new statistic may be the best argument yet to encourage people to get vaccinated and receive a booster.

“Hospitals are very full and not only are they full, they are understaffed and becoming more so, as more staff fall to COVID infection and having to stay home for their own health and the safety of others,” Strand said.

As kids return to school after the holiday break, Strand recommends they wear masks.

“If I wanted to protect my kids, I would get them vaccinated and I would have them wear a mask when they are out and about,” she said. “Whether they’re at school or out in the community, heading out to sports, hanging out with friends. Wearing a mask is what is going to keep kids safest if they’ve been vaccinated.”

Strand is encouraging parents to get their children tested for COVID, but not at a hospital emergency room, saying ERs should be visited for emergency care only.

For the last six months, task force leadership has bemoaned the unwillingness of many in the community to get vaccinated.

“We have very low uptake for vaccines in the state of Missouri, so combine that with very limited mask requirements, public health mitigation methods being limited, a healthcare workforce that is dwindling by the day, and we are ending up with the perfect storm we predicted a couple of weeks ago,” he said.

Garza said he and a beleaguered healthcare workforce are vexed by the continued politicization of the pandemic. 

“The vaccinated population that is in the hospitals right now almost universally have other conditions which make them more susceptible to an infection, regardless if it is COVID or some other disease. The vast majority of persons that are vaccinated will never need care in the hospital,” he said.

“Consider the hundreds of thousands of persons that are vaccinated throughout the St. Louis metropolitan region. It is an extremely small percentage of people that are vaccinated that end up in the hospital with COVID. On the other hand, consider the percentage of persons that are unvaccinated that end up needing admission due to COVID infection and it is much, much higher. The bottom line is that vaccinations reduce the risk of serious poor outcomes, including death, across the population. Don’t be fooled by thinking that just because people that have been vaccinated can still get COVID equates to ‘vaccines don’t work.’ That is a false and dangerous conclusion that is not supported by any evidence.”

The task force says an additional 12 people have succumbed to the virus while fighting for life in area hospital beds. That brings the 2022 death total in area hospitals to 39 patients and Garza says healthcare workers are struggling to help those patients, and their families, cope with the impact of the omicron surge.  In the past seven days, 1,177 patients have been admitted to area hospitals for COVID care. That’s a new seven-day record for admissions. Only 896 patients were released in that same span.