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Vaccinations are relief, but virus still spreading at dangerous rate: ‘Unlike anything I have ever seen’

Vaccinations are relief, but virus still spreading at dangerous rate: ‘Unlike anything I have ever seen’

Staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations at  SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital

Anesthesiologist Jonathan Rost, left, is administered the COVID-19 vaccine by Kelly Weary, program manager for nursing administration, at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital in St. Louis on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Photo by Cheyenne Boone,

ST. LOUIS — Kate Miller, a nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, spent 12 years in intensive care units, and she’s trained for crises with the U.S. Army Nurses Corps.

“But the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything I had ever seen before,” Miller said Friday during a briefing by the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

On her first day caring for COVID-19 patients, Miller pushed together the beds of a dying couple so they could hold hands one last time. A few weeks ago, a patient who had been talking to her daughter one night earlier was at death’s door by the morning. Miller held the patient’s hand while her daughter said goodbye from an iPad. The woman died that afternoon, with Miller still at her side.

“That’s the first breath I remember taking that day,” Miller said. “I was past the point of exhaustion. I was physically, spiritually and emotionally drained.”

Hospitals are now vaccinating staff apace, and new coronavirus infections have plateaued. But the Pandemic Task Force on Friday reminded the public that health care systems are still overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and the infection rate in the surrounding community is still higher than it’s been for most of the pandemic.

“Our numbers are plateauing, but they’re plateauing at a dangerously high level,” Task Force Director Dr. Alex Garza said Friday. “And every day the pandemic is just as precarious, it’s just as deadly as it was the day before — that hasn’t changed at all.”

Missouri reported 3,723 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, up from 3,569 on Thursday. Friday’s infection count was the highest since Dec. 12, when 3,743 cases were reported in a single day.

The seven-day average for new cases in Missouri has declined steadily since reaching a peak of 4,722 on Nov. 20. By Friday, the seven-day average was down to 3,103.

Still, more people in Missouri are being infected by COVID-19 than at any point in the pandemic prior to November. During a summer peak in cases, for example, the state’s seven-day average on July 30 was 1,590.

The state also reported 19 new deaths Friday, raising the toll to 4,853 since the beginning of the pandemic. In all, at least 360,330 people in Missouri have been infected by COVID-19.

Illinois on Friday reported 7,377 new COVID-19 infections, down from 8,828 on Thursday.

Illinois also reported 180 deaths on Friday, raising the state’s death tally since the start of the pandemic to 15,015. COVID-19 has infected a total of 886,805 people in the state.

In the St. Louis region, 115 people were newly hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday, the latest date available, down from 121 one day earlier. Like with daily case counts, though, that number remains significantly higher than it was at any point before November.

Hospitals reported that 83% of their beds were occupied with patients, and intensive care units were at 88% capacity, with about one-third of ICU patients requiring critical care for COVID-19 symptoms. An average of 893 people a day across the St. Louis region’s hospitals are receiving critical care for COVID-19 — more than at any point before late November, said Garza, the task force chief.

“It’s still putting a tremendous strain on our health care workers who care for these patients in addition to all of the other patients that we have at our hospitals, and it’s making our workforce stretch incredibly thin,” he said.

The first vaccinations signal an impending end to the pandemic, Garza said, bolstered by news that federal officials approved a second vaccine, produced by Moderna. Though reports indicated that some states may receive fewer vaccines than expected, Garza said officials were prepared to adapt to any distribution challenges.

But vaccinating enough people in the region to reach herd immunity will take months, Garza said, urging residents to avoid gathering for the holidays and continue masking when in public.

“With this much virus circulating you really have to assume that you could have the virus and you could spread it to others,” Garza said.

Illinois as of Friday had vaccinated more than 17,000 people outside the Chicago area alone, up from 3,500 people one day earlier, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. He said the state could expect shipments of the Moderna vaccine as early as next week.

“It reinforces and enlightens the end of the tunnel for all of us who have been fighting COVID-19,” Pritzker said.

Nassim Benchaabane • 314-340-8167 @NassimBnchabane on Twitter

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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