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Garza Talks Kuwait Deployment, Delta Variant And Missouri’s Latest COVID-19 Surge

File photo | Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Alex Garza is the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, which comprises the region's four largest health systems.

For more than a year, Dr. Alex Garza led the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force as it navigated the spread of COVID-19 in the region. But next month, his duties as commander will be split among his colleagues across the region’s four major health systems: SSM Health, Mercy, BJC HealthCare and St. Luke’s Hospital.

That’s because Garza will start his four-month-long deployment in Kuwait with the U.S. Army Reserve, “going from one crisis to another,” Garza said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

While he will formally serve as an emergency physician there, Garza said he is more than willing to share his expertise in dealing with the coronavirus if people there would find it useful. He’ll be based at Camp Arifjan, the same military base he was deployed to at the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.

“Certainly, if asked, I would be happy to help out,” he said. “I do a lot of that in the military with the civil affairs unit, working with host nation countries, so it's not something that's far-fetched from what I traditionally do in the military.”

Garza Talks Kuwait Deployment, Delta Variant And Missouri’s Latest COVID-19 Surge
Listen as Dr. Alex Garza shares his thoughts ahead of army deployment and spread of COVID-19 delta variant in the region.

But the timing is less than ideal for the St. Louis region: After months of decline, Missouri has again become a hot spot for the coronavirus as it deals with a fast-spreading variant of the virus. First detected in the United States in March, the new delta variant is considered more contagious than the other virus strains. It’s also resulted in a greater percentage of hospitalizations than the previously dominant strain, Garza said.

While the pandemic task force held its final briefing on June 14, the team is not disbanding; leadership responsibilities will be split among Garza’s colleagues.

“It's not about one person, it's about the mission. There's plenty of extremely talented, capable people that I've worked with over the past year that I have complete faith and confidence will be able to pick up those pieces and do a great job,” he said.

As for whether he’ll return to leading the task force upon his return to St. Louis in four months, Garza joked, “I've given strict instructions that I want the pandemic to be over by the time I return … I'm hoping that they will follow through on that.”

He added, “I'm hoping that most of this will have calmed down to a very manageable level where we don't need a task force — that it’s just something that we do.”

Here are Garza’s responses to questions asked by listeners on Thursday’s program:

Q: How effective is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against the delta variant? Should those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine get a booster with Pfizer or Moderna?

A: There's reason to believe that it is effective against the delta variant. But there has been some data that suggests that the people that have the J&J vaccine may need a booster dose — and this is just coming out of Europe — with an mRNA vaccine [like Pfizer or Moderna]. And the bottom line is: We don't know right now. But I would not be surprised if in the future there's a recommendation for a booster dose for the J&J vaccine. We just don't have enough data right now.

Q: Any symptomatic cases on fully vaccinated St. Louis area residents due to this variant?

A: The risk of becoming sick from that delta variant, if you're fully vaccinated, is extremely low. The patients that we are seeing are people that have other medical conditions. So if they're on chemotherapy and unable to mount an immune response, even though they've been fully vaccinated. And even some of the CDC data, when you dig into it, [shows] that people can get admitted to the hospital for another reason but just happened to incidentally also have COVID-19. … The patients that we are seeing are people that have other medical conditions.

Q: My wife and I are vaccinated, but our young children age 2 and 4 are not eligible for a vaccine yet. Is it safe to take them outside the house if we wear masks?

A: Unvaccinated people should be wearing masks and practicing social distancing. What I frequently tell people is, “Do your risk assessment, individually, depending upon what you're going to be doing.” So certainly, if you're taking your kids out to the park, you're outdoors, there's greater ability to socially distance, then I'm not as worried about it. If you're going to a more crowded atmosphere, such as a small enclosed room with many people where you're not sure of their vaccination status and there's poor ventilation, [wear a mask].

Q: Are St. Louis hospitals concerned about needing to take on patients coming from southwest Missouri hospitals, who say they're at a breaking point?

A: Yes. The metropolitan area doesn't just serve the citizens of the immediate vicinity. We’re really a resource for the eastern part of the state. … We're all one big community. And so if we have people becoming sick from COVID-19, from not just the metropolitan area but from the greater regional area, you can have a significant impact on our health care facilities.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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