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'We're certainly going in the right direction:' St. Louis-area COVID-19 case rates dropping, task force says

'We're certainly going in the right direction:' St. Louis-area COVID-19 case rates dropping, task force says

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ST. LOUIS — St. Louis-area COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined from a peak in August but are still well above the levels seen before the delta variant prompted a spike of new infections.

The region’s case rates are about 40% lower than the recent peak in early August, said Dr. Clay Dunagan, acting head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, during a briefing Tuesday. But they are still five times as high as they were in June.

“We’re not done with this wave of the pandemic yet. But we’re certainly going in the right direction,” said Dunagan, an infectious disease expert at Washington University and BJC HealthCare’s chief clinical officer.

Over the summer, Missouri’s seven-day average fell as low as 396 new cases, on June 3. Then the highly transmissible delta variant, helped by low vaccination rates, spread throughout southwest Missouri and then the rest of the state. In August, the state hit a summer peak of 3,032. Case rates have since fallen but have not returned to the early summer levels. On Tuesday, the seven-day average was 1,266.

The number of patients hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 in the area fell below 300 on Tuesday for the first time since late July.

Still, a higher proportion of the cases are among children, many of whom are not yet eligible for the vaccines.

Missouri lags behind the U.S. average vaccination rate, with 48% fully vaccinated, and 54% with at least one dose, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services. Nationwide, about 57% of the population are fully vaccinated, and 66% have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than three-quarters of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients in task force hospitals are unvaccinated. Among the vaccinated patients, Dunagan said, many are immunocompromised or have conditions that put them at risk for longer hospital stays.

Last year, October brought a steep rise in case counts, which led to a winter peak of cases in December. Officials have said they were worried about a rebound this fall and winter, too. But Dunagan was more circumspect on Tuesday.

The emergence of the alpha variant — which was more transmissible than the strains the preceded it — played a role in fueling last winter’s surge. Barring the introduction of a new variant, or an uptick due to the colder weather, Dunagan said, the region by the end of the year could get back down to case rates similar to those seen in June.

If case rates continue to decline and get down to June levels, Dunagan said he thinks the region will be in a position to start easing some precautions such as mask-wearing.

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