Memorial Hospital President Paints Bleak COVID-19 Picture in Metro East
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Mike McManus, president and CEO of Memorial Hospital, projects the worst is still to come from the COVID-19 pandemic.
During St. Clair County’s weekly COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, McManus said his medical group has seen coronavirus hospitalizations jump from the mid-20s last week to the low-40s this week, with 91% of those individuals unvaccinated. And that number, he projected, will continue rising until at least the second week of September.
“We could reach or exceed the highest we’ve ever been in by the second week of September,” he said. “And the St. Louis Pandemic Task Force says these projections out there, they show the week after Labor Day, the curve is going up pretty high. And, again, 91% of those likely will be unvaccinated.”
He also noted the trickle down from significant portions of the population remaining unvaccinated, while calling the present situation the “fourth wave” of COVID.
“The more unvaccinated we have — at least from my perspective — the more hospitals will be overwhelmed; the more schools in my opinion will likely be shut down because there’s going to be an outbreak somewhere because under 12 you don’t get vaccinated; travel I think will be impacted. Not to mention creating an environment for new variants among unvaccinated,” he said.
“In the hospital we say we’re in our fourth wave, our fourth surge. We’ve never really been out of it. It’s a little bit nervous seeing our projections that we’re doing within BJC health system and the St. Louis region and seeing what it could be.”
Continuing, McManus outlined the increases Memorial has seen, going from zero COVID patients in early June to the 42 he cited Wednesday. In early June specifically, McManus said they had five days with zero hospitalizations.
“The last five weeks, we’ve seen a trending up and we’re seeing younger patients of all ages trending up,” he said. “The one bright spot I can say in this right now, is the 75+ age group is flat or declining over those last five weeks. Every other age group is going up. That’s because that 75+ group is largely vaccinated. So that’s good.”
McManus also noted the disproportionate amount of Black patients they’ve seen compared to the white population. He said the shift is a sharp change from what McManus called “the previous three waves.”
“Also what’s interesting, and I think the story that came out this week I saw about the percentage breakdowns by zip codes in terms of vaccination percentages, I think it’s relevant that the first three waves or surges that we had, if I remember right, in St. Clair County ... the African American population of the county is roughtly 28, 29%.
“We were about 50-50 in terms of our COVID patient demographics in terms of white/African-Americans the first three waves. This wave, it’s 70% African-American, 30% white. If you look at those percentage breakdowns, you’ll see that there’s lower percentages in some of those larger African American populated ZIP codes.”
COVID deaths, misinformation
Regarding COVID deaths, McManus expressed confusion when the immediate response is “did that person have underlying health conditions?”.
“Almost as if that rationalizes the situation,” he said. “Which, does it really make a difference? I don’t really think that makes a difference here. Perhaps they have underlying medical conditions, but that person may have been around for a number of more years. Which almost rationalizes the situation. Does that make a difference?”
McManus also addressed misinformation, specifically relating to the vaccine. In simple terms, he said people should rely on their health-care providers and other sources such as Washington University in St. Louis, BJC Health System/Memorial and the Mayo Clinic. He noted each has several available resources.
McManus also said to lean on the CDC, which he admittedly noted frustrates him at times.
“I get as frustrated with the CDC as much as anybody else, honestly, because it seems like they’re flip flopping all over the place,” he said. “But I also think they’re chasing a moving target, truthfully. Yes, the CDC ... that’s a definitive voice. I can understand sometimes how people can feel frustrated by the CDC. I get it, because I get frustrated by the CDC sometimes.”
‘Choices do have implications’
McManus also said he supports people making their own choices, while noting BJC employees are required to be vaccinated. Furthermore, he asked people to consider the implications of remaining unvaccinated, both to themselves and others.
“This has become a battle ground about choice, too. I hear a lot about choice,” he said. “I firmly believe that ... folks do have a choice to get vaccinated or not. I think if they choose not to be vaccinated, they have to assume that they will get COVID. I think with this variant that’s a foregone conclusion.
“And you may get pretty sick. I think that choice also impacts people. It impacts our health care workers who are burning out. Choices do have implications. I just want to reinforce that.”
Nurses and other staff burned out
He also discussed the exhaustion — and resentment — of nurses and staff.
“They’re burned out. They’re tired. Quite honestly, they’re a little bit resentful that we’re in this situation again when, potentially, it could have been prevented to this magnitude. It’s tough,” he said.
Beyond that, McManus also discussed the emotional anguish staff members face dealing with sick patients, especially the younger ones.
“Because we are seeing younger folks in our hospital and are very sick, we’re seeing some tragic situations that are tragic for the family and tragic and emotionally devastating for the staff,” he said. “Because you are sitting there with an IPAD because of the visitor policy (one per day) and the precautions and talking to people ... and the nurse is holding that IPAD as that person who is on a ventilator is just trying to communicate. It’s devastating.”
Moving forward, McManus said he expects a series of COVID surges due to low vaccination numbers.
“They might be smaller and smaller but I think we’re going to have a series of surges ... I think we’re going to see a pandemic that keeps going.”
Garen Vartanian is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.