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Coronavirus

COVID cases have ballooned quickly in St. Louis. Officials warn it will get worse

A hospital worker tends to a COVID patient at St. Luke's Hospital in Dec. 2020. Officials say COVID cases could snowball in the coming days, following a busy holiday travel season and the rise of the highly-contagious omicron variant.
File photo / David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
A hospital worker tends to a COVID patient at St. Luke's Hospital in December 2020. Officials say COVID cases could snowball in the coming days, following a busy holiday travel season and the rise of the highly contagious omicron variant.

St. Louis County is experiencing one of its largest surges in COVID cases in more than a year, as officials appeal a court ruling that has stopped health departments from taking action to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

On average, 660 county residents are testing positive for the coronavirus per day — nearly 70% higher than last week’s average. Officials say case numbers could snowball in the coming days, following a busy holiday travel season and the rise of the highly contagious omicron variant.

The rapid rise in cases comes as officials from St. Louis and Jackson counties have sought to appeal a Cole County Circuit Court judge’s ruling that limits the authority of local health departments. The two counties on Monday appealed Judge Daniel Green’s Dec. 22 decision not to reopen the case.

St. Louis and Jackson counties, along with health departments from three other Missouri counties, had filed motions to intervene in the 2020 lawsuit brought by St. Louis residents and businesses against the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

In his ruling, Green ordered health departments to refrain from issuing public health orders, including rules that require masks in public indoor spaces. "Missouri's local health authorities have grown accustomed to issuing edicts and coercing compliance," he wrote. "It is far past time for this unconstitutional conduct to stop."

County Executive Sam Page called the Cole County ruling “wholly inappropriate” and said it has caused widespread confusion.

“The confusion has already led to some county public health departments abandoning their response to rising COVID cases out of fear that the wrath of the state will descend upon them,” Page said.

Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has continued to climb across St. Louis.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Monday reported 630 patients are hospitalized with the illness across the region’s four major health systems, up from 565 on Thursday. Of these, 74% are unvaccinated.

Public health experts warn a massive wave of infections could overtake the U.S. by the end of January, driven by the omicron variant. The new version of the virus already makes up nearly 3 in 4 new cases nationwide.

A recent analysis from the University of Washington estimates 400,000 Americans will become infected with the omicron variant per day at the highest point of the surge — considerably more than the 250,000 daily infections during last winter’s peak.

Though the variant appears to be somewhat milder than other versions of the virus, doctors warn the sheer number of infected patients could overwhelm hospitals and clinics.

The omicron variant was identified in 32 of 57 wastewater samples collected in Missouri the week of Dec. 20, according to state health officials. These included seven testing sites in St. Louis and five in St. Charles.

As cases increase, Page advised residents to protect themselves with “every tool available” to them.

“Omicron is likely three to five times more transmissible than delta, so every infected person is infecting more people than ever before,” Page said. “This means that you're very likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in the next couple of weeks.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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