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With hundreds of workers out, St. Louis area hospitals request federal help during COVID-19 surge

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Area nurses closer to breaking point than ever

Micah Toombs, a registered nurse in SSM Health St. Mary's intensive care unit, closes the door behind her on Monday, Sep. 27, 2021, as she enters a room with a patient who tests positive for COVID-19. Area nurses now face their greatest tests because of the continuing pandemic, long hours, being short staffed, low vaccination rates and many COVID-19 deaths. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — Area hospitals, desperate for workers, have requested emergency staff from the federal government to help manage a record surge of COVID-19 patients.

Four area Mercy hospitals, five SSM Health hospitals, one BJC HealthCare hospital and one St. Luke’s Hospital facility asked for assistance, according to state records.

“We have attempted to weather this storm alone; however, we are now at the point where we must request assistance from the Federal Government,” the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force said in one of the requests for aid. “With every passing hour our community is at greater risk, not only from the spread of Omicron, but from the delayed or inaccessible care which it creates.”

COVID cases remain at record levels in area hospitals, and workforce shortages are worse than ever, as many health care workers stay home because of sickness, exposure, or to care for ill family members.

Mercy Hospital Jefferson requested 72 positions in total, including 67 nurses. SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in Lake Saint Louis requested 21 nurses and one physician, according to the records, which were provided by the Missouri Department of Public Safety. Other hospitals did not include numbers in their requests.

The health systems on Wednesday referred questions to Dr. Alex Garza, chief community health officer for SSM Health and co-leader of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

Garza said the requests were submitted on Friday, an effort coordinated by the area’s East-West Gateway Council of Governments. The regional office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is handling the requests, and has asked for more information about the hospitals’ needs.

“We think it’s moving pretty quickly,” Garza said.

Garza said he does not believe local hospitals are so stressed that patient safety is being compromised. But, he added, “As a community, we know we’re not delivering the best care that we should be delivering, because our attention is so diverted to taking care of this influx of COVID patients. We know that there are people out in the community that are sick or having untreated conditions.”

In some parts of the country, health officials are beginning to report declines in COVID-19 cases, leading some to hope that the surge has passed its worst heights in those places.

The task force did not report new hospitalization data on Wednesday, because of a computer upgrade at one of the health systems. On Tuesday the group reported a total of 1,392 COVID-19 patients in area hospitals — down from 1,444 the day before, but still the second-highest day on record. The seven-day average of newly admitted patients fell to 210 a day, from 219 on Saturday.

Garza said Wednesday that the region will need a few days to a week of additional data to determine if hospital admissions truly are slowing . Even if that proves true, he said, they still are at such high levels that hospitals will continue to be strained.

The state reported 14,242 new cases on Wednesday. The state has reported, on average, 23 virus deaths each day over the past week.

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