JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday said that the number of patients in hospitals has been dropping in every part of the state since April 7, except for the St. Louis region.
At a briefing Tuesday in the Capitol, Parson repeated his intention to loosen social distancing orders that have left many businesses struggling to stay afloat. He said the state reached peak hospitalization on April 7, at 1,242 cases. The number of patients in hospitals is one of the best measures of the pandemic, Parson said, and the health system was not being overwhelmed.
Most regions of the state have seen significant reductions in the number of hospitalized patients, he said, ranging from 38% to 45% in the Kansas City area and central, northwest and southeast parts of Missouri. The northeast region of the state has seen a 67% reduction and the southwest portion a 63% drop, he said.
St. Louis has seen an 8% increase since April 7, he said, in patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, or those under investigation for the disease.
“This is why we have to evaluate numbers locally and regionally, not just on a statewide scale,” Parson said.
Asked about the hospital data, Dr. Alex Garza, chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said that the St. Louis area has seen a flat and stable hospitalization rate in recent days, and he expects that to taper down over the next week or so.
Garza said that maintaining the stay-at-home orders in St. Louis city and county is “absolutely the right move right now” because of the hospital numbers. He said he could not explain why the St. Louis area had been hit harder than Kansas City, saying that would have to be determined at a later date. Garza stressed that reopening would have to be done “gradually and safely to avoid a future health care crisis” caused by a second wave of infections.
In St. Charles County, County Executive Steve Ehlmann announced Tuesday that the county would follow Parson’s plan for reopening the economy. Ehlmann cited an infection rate in St. Charles County half that of St. Louis city and county.
St. Charles County is the third most populous county in the state after St. Louis County and Jackson County, which includes parts of Kansas City. With a population of more than 400,000 people, St. Charles County has more people than the city of St. Louis.
Jefferson County also will follow Parson’s plan to reopen, County Executive Dennis Gannon announced Tuesday.
The metro region did see some loosening of restrictions Tuesday, as St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced that 33 parks would reopen; 21 remain closed. Restrooms, playgrounds and some other facilities also are still closed.
Parson said that 7,303 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, and 314 people have died from it. The state recorded 132 new cases and 26 new deaths. More than 74,000 tests have been performed.
Illinois remains closed
On Tuesday Illinois officials reported 114 new deaths related to the coronavirus, the most yet in a single day. A total of 2,125 people in Illinois have died and 48,102 have tested positive. More than 242,000 tests have been performed.
Pritzker has said he will not consider reopening the state until measures of the virus’ spread, like hospitalizations, slow. There were 4,738 people hospitalized in Illinois Tuesday, up by 56 from the day before.
Meanwhile, Garza said an additional 50 patients were discharged from St. Louis area hospitals Monday, bringing the total to 1,167.
The count of those with confirmed cases could change with an expanded list of possible COVID-19 symptoms, released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC initially listed fever, cough and difficulty breathing, later adding shortness of breath. The new symptoms are chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and a loss of taste or smell.
Symptoms can appear two to 14 days after exposure.
Dr. Hilary Babcock, a Washington University infectious disease specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, said the symptom lists are used to help the general public understand what to look for, and when to call a doctor. But health departments also use them to set criteria for testing. The expanded list could allow more people to get tested, which would increase the number of those who test positive. Dr. Babcock said it was not clear, however, whether that would increase the rate of positives among the tests.
Among the White House milestones that must be met for a state to reopen is a “downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period” or a “downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period.”
Health care systems must also be able to treat patients and have a “robust testing system in place.”
The guidelines can be modified for rural or suburban areas that have suffered milder outbreaks, however.
Parson, a Republican, brought out his allies in the business community on Tuesday to weigh in on the lifting of restrictions on May 4.
“It’s great that we see a light at the end of the tunnel for businesses,” said Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“We are ready to get back to work,” added Greg Hunsucker, a member of the Missouri Restaurant Association board of directors.
Parson nonetheless cautioned that people should continue to be wary of the disease.
“This virus is still out there,” Parson said. “Use common sense. Follow social distancing guidelines.”
Kurt Erickson, Erin Heffernan and Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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