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As virus cases drop, St. Louis hospital task force prepares to end weekly briefings, a pillar of the region’s pandemic response

As virus cases drop, St. Louis hospital task force prepares to end weekly briefings, a pillar of the region’s pandemic response

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Moment of silence for health care workers

Dr. Alex Garza, center, talks with Mayor Tishaura Jones, left, and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page following a moment of silence outside SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond Heights on Monday, May 10, 2021. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force’s weekly briefing, an information lifeline for a worried community during a sometimes desperate year, will end this month, as statewide COVID-19 case numbers and local hospitalizations plummet to levels not seen in about a year.

The briefings, from the area’s four health systems — BJC HealthCare, SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s Hospital — updated a concerned public at the height of the pandemic, sometimes almost every day. Task force leader Dr. Alex Garza, SSM Health’s chief community health officer, became a near-constant in local media and on Facebook, where the task force aired its briefings.

Dave Dillon, spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association, said the task force is unique in the state. It serves as a noncompetitive forum for hospitals to work through challenges together.

“St. Louis will probably end up being a national model for how to do this well,” Dillon said.

Garza was not available for an interview on Monday. A spokeswoman said the task force isn’t going away.

“COVID isn’t over,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Zoller. “We don’t want to see another spike like we saw in the fall.”

The task force will now focus on early detection, she said, and on monitoring the community for spikes in cases.

But in recent weeks, as statewide case numbers and local hospitalizations have tumbled, the task force has trimmed its appearances to once weekly.

As of Monday, Missouri’s seven-day average of new confirmed COVID-19 cases was 263, almost the lowest it’s been in a year, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis. Illinois’ seven-day average of new cases was 472, falling below 500 for the first time since the spring of 2020.

The task force on Monday reported 17 new COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals in the area and a total of 108 virus patients — down from a peak of 962 in December. Task force data lags two days.

In general, the St. Louis region is doing “really well,” said Dr. Elvin Geng, a professor of infectious diseases at Washington University.

In the coming months, Geng said, the population will not be at such great risk of “massive, epidemic spread,” but there will still be outbreaks in communities with low uptake of vaccines.

Enbal Shacham, a professor at St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice, said she expects that, especially as people move between the region’s urban, suburban and rural areas throughout the summer, there will be a “persistent infection rate.” Gathering places like indoor graduation ceremonies and summer camps will remain a concern.

Shacham said she worries there is no universal system to try and catch outbreaks early on. A detection system to look for concerning trends, like increased visits to urgent cares or increased mobility in high-traffic locations, may be able to send a warning to public health officials.

Health experts are especially concerned by rising case numbers in some parts of Missouri, a slowing pace of vaccinations, and more easily transmissible variants of the virus.

Only 42% of Missourians have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the state, about 10 percentage points less than the national average.

And some counties lag far behind even the state average, with three — Pulaski, McDonald and Reynolds counties — at or below 16%, according to state data.

Plus, the pace of vaccinations has slowed dramatically in the state in recent weeks, and Missouri’s health care providers are ordering far fewer vaccines. Last week they requested just 1,670 doses, down from a peak in mid-April, when they requested almost 136,000 in one week.

Geng said two of the major motivations to get vaccinated are to protect one’s own health and to help stop the spread of the virus in society. Once 80% or 90% of the population is vaccinated, he worries that people will lose sight of the latter.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force will hold its final press briefing on June 14.

But that doesn’t mean the work is finished, said Dillon, the hospital association spokesman.

COVID-19 variants or emerging hot spots could turn the situation around.

“We have the capacity to turn it back on,” Dillon said.

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