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Health, Science, Environment

Coronavirus Hospital Admissions In St. Louis Spike Dramatically For Second Day

Mercy Hospital St. Louis
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Mercy Hospital St. Louis in west St. Louis County and other hospitals say they're reaching capacity as they fill with coronavirus patients.

The coronavirus continues to spread rapidly throughout the St. Louis region.

The area’s four largest hospital systems on Wednesday admitted 97 people with the virus, exceeding the previous record for the second day in a row. Throughout the summer, St. Louis hospitals admitted about 40 coronavirus patients a day.

An average of more than 1,200 people in the bistate region are testing positive for the virus each day.

The virus is now spreading easily and sustainably throughout the state, Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services, said during a press conference Thursday.

Williams said people are likely getting the virus at small gatherings, not large events.

“We believe people are contracting it from people they know,” he said. “It’s not going to Schnucks or Wal-Mart as much as the six people you know: your son, your daughter, your family members, your friends, people you gather with.”

That’s especially worrisome as the holidays near and people move indoors during colder weather, he said. The coronavirus can spread easier inside where there is less ventilation.

Williams said he is confident fewer people will get sick once the federal government approves and distributes a coronavirus vaccine. He expects the first one to be available by the end of the year.

“Right now, we’re in the steep part of the curve going up a hill,” Williams said. “There is a top of the hill, and when you get to the top it gets easier. And we think that’s the vaccine.”

The federal government is helping to develop vaccines from six drug companies. One, from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, appears to be on track to soon gain approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

In the meantime, health officials say hospitals are nearing capacity. Health workers are burned out, and there aren’t enough staff to take care of all the patients.

“We’re trying to bend and flex with people like we never have before,” said Robyn Weilbacher, chief nursing officer at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

Hospital officials say health systems already have fewer workers due to coronavirus-related layoffs and sick leave. They say the increasing number of daily patients is unsustainable.

Many health care workers also are parents whose schedules have been thrown off because they need to take care of children attending virtual schooling, Weilbacher said. Schedules are irregular and unpredictable, and many people are having to work longer shifts.

Area hospitals are at 90% total capacity, said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. Intensive care units are at 91 percent capacity. About 15% of patients in the ICU are sick with the coronavirus.

“All hospitals are currently considering plans, including limiting elective surgery, if the case rates and hospitalizations continue to climb,” said Dr. Will Ross, head of the St. Louis Joint Board of Health and Hospitals.

But there’s limits to what local officials can do to limit spread when it’s happening in private, he said.

“We are very concerned about the rising cases, which appear to be driven predominantly in small group, family settings,” Ross said. “These are for obvious reasons quite difficult to regulate and restrict.”

If hospital admissions continue to climb, the board will schedule an emergency meeting next week to “review other options,” he said.

BJC HealthCare announced earlier this week that Barnes-Jewish Hospital and three other hospitals in the St. Louis region would suspend certain elective procedures that required inpatient beds in order to free up space for coronavirus patients.

People need to start acting as if the coronavirus is always a nearby threat, Garza said. They need to avoid informal gatherings, where much of the virus is spreading.

“There’s no cavalry coming to the rescue,” he said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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