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Pandemic evolving, task force chief says, as Missouri logs an uptick in COVID-19 cases

Pandemic evolving, task force chief says, as Missouri logs an uptick in COVID-19 cases

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ST. LOUIS — The head of the region’s pandemic task force said on Tuesday that COVID-19 infection patterns, with case numbers again rising some, suggest the pandemic is shifting into a new phase.

“It’s all conjecture at this point,” Dr. Clay Dunagan, acting head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said during a briefing Tuesday. “But I think there’s a strong suggestion from … the pattern we’re seeing, that this upturn represents the continued evolution of COVID into an endemic virus that’s probably going to have periodic surges.”

Likely the best-case scenario, he added, is that COVID-19 joins the ranks of other respiratory viruses — like influenza and rhinoviruses — that largely emerge for a few months in the winter and then recede during the rest of the year.

During the most recent wave of infections, Missouri’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases peaked at 3,032 in early August, driven by the delta variant of the coronavirus. As summer turned to fall, the case rate slowed, and by Oct. 22 the seven-day average had declined to 956. But in the two-and-a-half weeks since then, the numbers have rebounded some, to 1,139 on Tuesday.

Dunagan, who serves as chief clinical officer for BJC HealthCare and an infectious disease expert at Washington University, last month noted that the emergence of the alpha variant — which was more transmissible than the strains that preceded it — played a role in fueling last winter’s surge. Because of that, it is difficult to tell how much the colder weather affected COVID-19 transmission last winter, he said.

On Tuesday, Dunagan showed maps of global COVID-19 infection rates, which generally showed more spread in the northern hemisphere. That pattern, he said, has led some to believe the virus is beginning to follow a seasonal trend. Still, he said, it’s too early to predict long-term COVID-19 patterns with any certainty.

“I do believe, based on what we’re currently seeing, that we’re probably going to have continued disease transmission at fairly significant levels through the holiday season,” Dunagan said.

Bolstering the region’s vaccination rates, he added, is the best way to buffer against infection going forward. The region, and the state as a whole, lag well behind the national vaccination rate, which stood at 58.5% on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statewide, 49.8% of the population have been fully vaccinated, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. St. Louis County and St. Charles County are the only counties in the Missouri portion of the region with more than half of their population fully vaccinated, at 54.5% and 54.2%, respectively. In the Illinois portion of the metro area, only the counties of Monroe (54.3%), Madison (51.5%) and Clinton (50.3%) have more than half of their population fully vaccinated.

Children ages 5 years and older are now eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Most adults are eligible for booster doses, including those who live in long-term care facilities, have underlying medical conditions, live or work in high-risk settings, are 65 years or older or are overweight or obese. And booster doses are also available to all adults who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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