News Briefs

‘This is a time of war,’ says St. Louis’ pandemic task force leader

By: - December 7, 2020 5:42 pm
St. Louis Hospitalizations

St. Louis area hospitals are seeing about 20 patients die every day.

“That is 20 people a day who won’t be going back home to their loved ones,” said Dr. Alex Garza, incident commander for the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, during his Monday briefing.

That number has tripled since October, he said, and the surge of deaths is completely consistent with the increase in cases and hospitalizations in the St. Louis metro area. 

On Friday, there were two intensive care unit (ICU) beds available in the entire metro area, he said. The task force includes four major health care systems: BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St Luke’s Hospital.

These health care systems represent 2.8 million people for an area that encompasses surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois in the larger St. Louis region.

Now these hospitals are trying to double up patients in each ICU room, Garza said Monday.

The only way to combat this surge is for everyone to make sacrifices.

“This is a time of war, and war requires sacrifice,” Garza said. “What we do outside the hospital is the only way to prevent our hospital staff and systems from becoming overwhelmed.”

Garza pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that was issued on Dec. 4, which urged people to postpone travel and avoid nonessential indoor spaces including restaurants and bars. The CDC deemed eating inside a restaurant a “high-risk scenario.”

While St. Louis County has prohibited indoor dining, the City of St. Louis has not.  

On Friday, Garza showed that the city’s new hospital admission rate was higher than St. Louis County’s. When asked if the city’s decision to keep indoor dining facilities open could have contributed to that difference, Garza said, “certainly it contributes some.”

“Anytime where you have the people coming together in a confined space, where they’re not wearing masks for a significant portion of that time — which we know does occur in in-dining facilities— that’s a high-risk environment,” Garza said.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force has asked the governor to issue a mask mandate and a safer-at-home order, which would encourage people to stay home except for essential trips out. Gov. Mike Parson has consistently said he will not issue a statewide mask mandate or limit gatherings.

The more people stay at home and social distance, Garza said, the more the virus goes down.

“But we are still fighting the battle without all the weapons and tools that we need,” Garza said. “I hope this changes. Until it does, you are the best hope we have.”

When asked about the state’s program to provide additional staff to hospitals, Garza said that the program is just getting started. Hospital leaders were asked to provide the state with the number of staff members that they are requesting by 2 p.m. on Friday. 

“I will be clear, that doesn’t mean we are going to get staff from this contract,” Garza said. “It was made very clear to us that there’s no guarantee that we will get staff off of this contract.”

Garza said the health care systems are experienced in trying to recruit nurses from outside the area. 

But he noted, “It is exceptionally challenging right now and the rates are exorbitant.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a solutions reporter who focuses on civil rights, criminal justice and the marijuana industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.