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As COVID-19 hospitalizations retreat locally, area health officials hold final pandemic task force briefing

As COVID-19 hospitalizations retreat locally, area health officials hold final pandemic task force briefing

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Dr. Alex Garza delivers remarks during the final press conference for the St. Louis Metropolitan Task Force on Monday, June 14 2021 at The Learning Resource Center on the Saint Louis University Campus.

Video courtesy of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Monday convened for the group’s final briefing, marking another inflection point in the region’s COVID-19 response.

At the same time, the task force said it wasn’t disbanding: It will keep tracking the virus, and is discussing whether it could tackle other big, regional health issues.

“The pandemic is not over. But we’re in a very different place than where we were when we began these briefings back in April of last year,” said Dr. Alex Garza, the group’s leader and SSM Health’s chief community health officer. “As we return to that more normal way of life, we still have to be vigilant, and we have to continue to get more people vaccinated.”

Over the past 14 months, St. Louis-area residents have turned to the task force briefings for information about COVID-19, the vaccines, and new guidance from health authorities. Now, with local virus hospitalizations at their lowest point since the spring of 2020, and vaccines widely available, the region is entering a new phase, Garza said.

Average daily COVID-19 admissions, which peaked at 141 in November and remained between 35 and 40 for most of the spring, were at 17 on Monday. There were a total of 117 virus patients across area BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital facilities, down from a peak of 962 in the winter.

Task force leaders stressed that they are still concerned about more easily transmissible variants of the virus, the colder months to come and lagging vaccination rates. But the region is better equipped to manage the disease now, and will be more able to respond if there is a resurgence.

Dr. Aamina Akhtar, the chief medical officer of Mercy Hospital South, who has served as Mercy’s top clinical representative in the task force since late 2020, described the moment as “a pause.”

“If the numbers start changing, we come back together,” Akhtar said.

The task force includes the region’s four major health systems, along with representatives from area health departments and business groups.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker and Jefferson County Executive Dennis Gannon also appeared at Monday’s news conference.

State and local officials announced Missouri’s first confirmed COVID-19 case on March 7, 2020. The task force held its first briefing in early April. Garza has since held briefings multiple times each week, most of which were aired on Facebook. When case numbers and hospitalizations surged in late summer of 2020, and again in winter, Garza and others on the task force sounded the alarm.

The group’s most-viewed briefing was in mid-November, when Garza said the number of infected people in the region was “skyrocketing,” and urged Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to impose a statewide mask mandate. The briefing had nearly 95,000 views as of Monday.

More recently, as case and hospitalization numbers flattened and, eventually, began to recede over late spring and early summer, the briefings had been scaled back to once a week.

Some have discussed using the task force, in the future, to help address other large health issues the region faces. The group will continue to track COVID-19 data “indefinitely,” Garza said Monday. And representatives from the health systems will continue to meet to discuss operational details, like hospital visitors’ policies.

“So it’s really just a shift, more so than the task force going away,” Garza said.

In the coming months, experts expect a persistent, albeit lower, rate of COVID-19 infections in the community.

“We’ll still have COVID deaths. We’ll still have people in the ICU,” said Akhtar, of Mercy Hospital South. “But the numbers will be smaller.”

If there is a resurgence, Akhtar said, the burden on the health care systems will likely be smaller, now that more people are vaccinated.

Missouri reported on Monday that 2.6 million people have received a first dose of vaccine, or 42.9% of the population. And of those, 2.2 million, or 36.5% of the population, have been fully vaccinated.

The state still lags behind the national rate of 52.5% of residents having received at least one dose, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data accessed Monday. And northern and southwestern Missouri have seen surges of COVID-19 in recent weeks.

BJC chief clinical officer Dr. Clay Dunagan cautioned that in the fall, the air will grow colder and dryer — conditions that make it easier for viruses to spread, and that drive people indoors. If the region fails to achieve sufficient vaccinations by then, Dunagan said, and new variants arrive here, cases could increase.

“It’s really too soon to let our guard down,” Dunagan said.

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