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Hospital stays ebb in St. Louis region as health officials continue to urge caution over COVID-19
HEALTH CARE

Hospital stays ebb in St. Louis region as health officials continue to urge caution over COVID-19

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Eric Benford, front right, waits in line at an Affinia mobile testing site at Better Family Life on Page Boulevard in St. Louis on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. "This is something you need," says Benford who is a boxing coach at the Wohl Center. He hopes that by getting tested himself his students will do the same. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com.

ST. LOUIS — The number of hospitalizations in the St. Louis area Thursday for treatment of COVID-19 was at its lowest level in nearly a month, health officials said.

At the region’s major hospital systems — BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital — 596 people diagnosed with or suspected of having the virus received treatment over the 24 hours ending Thursday, the lowest number since April 11, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

Of those nearly 600 people, 147 were in intensive care units, the second-lowest number since the task force started tracking the cases on April 5. About 105 people were using ventilators to breathe, the lowest number the task force has recorded.

The seven-day average of hospitalizations in the region was at 646 Thursday, down from a peak April 21 of 706, the task force said.

New COVID-19 admissions at the hospitals have also been trending downward, from an average of 59 per day in early April to 39 on Thursday.

The region has been one of the state’s coronavirus hot spots, and both St. Louis and St. Louis County are still under stay-at-home orders that are not scheduled to be relaxed until May 18.

As hospitalizations around St. Louis are starting to drop, confirmed cases and deaths have been on a weeklong upward trend in Missouri, attributable to more widespread testing, including the testing of more than 2,400 workers at the Triumph Foods pork processing plant about an hour north of Kansas City, state health officials said.

Missouri has tested about 3,700 people a day over the past week, up from about 2,400 per day the week before.

The state reported 239 new cases of the virus Thursday and 20 additional deaths. There have been 9,341 total cases and 417 deaths since the start of the outbreak.

Gov. Mike Parson’s statewide stay-at-home order expired Monday, and he said in his Thursday briefing that he was pleased about “how well the reopening has gone this week and we remain optimistic about the future.”

He said he and his wife Teresa had gone to grocery and other stores in Jefferson City to see how sales were being conducted with social distancing.

He said he was “proud to say that the majority of people that we’ve seen out there today was using common sense” and that businesses were protecting their employees and customers. “And as you see, people are starting to go back and engage in the economy.”

Asked about whether he had been tested, Parson said no. “Never felt a need to do it ... I feel good, and I feel healthy and there’s a lot more people out there that probably needed that test more than I did.”

Illinois

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said 17,783 tests have been run in the last 24 hours in her state, for a total of 379,043. There are 4,862 COVID-19 patients in Illinois hospitals, including 1,253 in the ICU and 766 on ventilators.

Illinois recorded 2,641 new positive cases and 138 deaths, for a total of 70,873 cases and 3,111 deaths.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has repeatedly been questioned during his daily news briefings about the performance of the state’s unemployment system, including complaints of long delays.

He said Thursday that the Illinois Department of Employment Security has received a “breathtaking” and “unprecedented” quantity of unemployment claims due to the pandemic. He said the state has received more than 1 million unemployment claims this year, straining its ability to respond.

But new staff have been hired, retirees brought back to work and computer and phone systems have been updated or overhauled, he said. The majority of filers, about 75%, are now getting their money within two weeks of filing, he said.

He also issued an executive order so that the first payment will contain two weeks’ pay, not one, and added that the department will begin processing claims for self-employed workers and independent contractors on Monday.

Next steps

During a virtual meeting of St. Louis’ Joint Boards of Health and Hospitals on Thursday, the head of the board, Dr. Will Ross, said the city needs to have 100,000 to 200,000 masks for people who can’t obtain them.

He also presented data from modeling showing a second surge of cases and deaths following a reopening.

“Unequivocally, it is too early to open,” Ross told the Post-Dispatch after the meeting, adding that he understands the economic pressure to do so.

At the meeting, the city’s health director, Dr. Fredrick Echols, said the city has started to receive some of the COVID-19 test kits that it has sought since early March, and soon will be in a better position to offer testing to the general public.

Lawyers suing the city in two federal coronavirus-related cases challenged Echols’ qualifications Wednesday, after the city revealed in a court filing that he’d let his medical license lapse. Echols stopped seeing patients “some time ago” due to his employment in the public health field and is not currently licensed to practice medicine, the filing said.

The ArchCity Defenders legal advocacy firm, which sued on behalf of those who were fighting their eviction from a downtown homeless camp, said it needed to research “significant issues that have legal bearing on this case,” including Echols’ authority to order the camp cleared.

According to the city charter, the health department director must be a licensed physician or have a master’s degree in public health or “have been certified by the American Board of Preventive Medicine and Public Health.” Echols’ biographical information does not indicate he has an advanced degree in public health, and a search of Echols’ name on the website for the American Board of Preventive Medicine returned no results.

Echols is the first medical doctor to serve as health director since 2007, the city says. He formerly worked as the director of Communicable Disease, Vector and Veterinary Programs for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and was the chief of communicable diseases for the Illinois Department of Public Health. He also spent five years as a doctor in the U.S. Navy.

Mayoral spokesman Jacob Long said Thursday that Echols’ education and experience met “all the necessary requirements to have his job.”

“We are extremely fortunate, given his medical and professional background managing communicable diseases, to have Dr. Echols at the helm of the department during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” he said by email.

Businesses, meanwhile, have continued to chafe at stay-at-home orders issued by St. Louis and St. Louis County.

County Counselor Beth Orwick sent cease-and-desist letters to the two locations for the House of Pain gyms, in Chesterfield and Maryland Heights, saying they risk a misdemeanor offense or disqualification from the county’s small business relief program.

The gyms’ lawyer, W. Christopher McDonough, told Orwick in a letter Thursday that the county’s stay-at-home order and her cease-and-desist letters were “blatantly unconstitutional.” He said the order violates his clients’ rights of association and assembly under the First Amendment and right to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Annika Merrilees, Jeremy Kohler and Kim Bell of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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