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‘Virus is winning,’ task force warns as leaders urge Missouri governor to take action

‘Virus is winning,’ task force warns as leaders urge Missouri governor to take action

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ST. LOUIS — Top St. Louis-area medical leaders on Friday implored Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to take action before the coronavirus pandemic reaches such proportions that hospitals no longer have room to care for the sick.

Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, warned that, if things don’t change, the regional health care system will be overwhelmed in two weeks, with no backup in sight.

“We’re at war. And right here, right now, the virus is winning that war,” Garza said. “It will take significant and decisive action through individual acts and determined public policy to get us through.”

Parson responded, urging Missourians to “take personal responsibility,” social distance, wear masks and limit gatherings — but he steered clear of a mandate, as he has throughout the pandemic. “Gov. Parson has been very clear and consistent about his support for local control,” Kelli Jones, Parson’s communications director, said in a statement.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, in step with Garza, unilaterally announced on Friday morning a shutdown on most activities, closing the interiors of bars and restaurants, asking residents to limit gatherings to 10, and ordering them to leave home only for work, school, exercise, medical care, worship or essential supplies. But the rest of the region was not in sync. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson limited gatherings, too, but let bars and restaurants stay open.

And the leaders of some outlying counties declined to adjust restrictions at all.

Franklin County Commissioner Tim Brinker said mask mandates aren’t working. Residents need to use common sense, he said: “This is not rocket science.”

But Garza said at a briefing on Friday that individual behavior can no longer address the disaster, and called for coordinated action from leaders across the region and state. Hospital projections show that a delay of even one week would allow a far more severe crisis to develop, he said.

“We are all one big county now,” he said. “The lack of a mask mandate in one county has implications for residents and health care professionals in other parts of the state.”

Garza called for a “safer at home” policy much like Page’s.

4,000 new cases

Meanwhile, Missouri, Illinois and the St. Louis region continued to break virus records: Missouri reported on Friday 4,005 new coronavirus cases, clearing 4,000 new infections for the fourth straight day, and six of the last seven — and pushing the state’s seven-day average to another record, 4,124. Missouri also reported on Friday 20 new virus deaths, which now total 3,359.

Illinois broke records for new daily cases, 15,415, and total hospitalizations, 5,326.

And the St. Louis task force reported four new records on Friday: New hospital admissions rose to 125 from 109 on Thursday. The seven-day average of new admissions hit 105, from 101 on Thursday. The seven-day total hospitalizations average jumped to 628 from 599. And inpatient confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations leapt to 719 from 681.

Garza said the current volume of coronavirus hospitalizations in the St. Louis region is nearly three times what the task force considers sustainable; at the current pace, virus hospitalizations could easily double within two weeks. The state needs to plan now for that eventuality, he said at the briefing, his voice breaking with emotion.

“We have no backup that we can suddenly muster to come in and save the day,” he said.

Page announced on Friday new public health actions: He closed bar and restaurant interiors for patrons, allowing outside dining and takeout.

And he mandated a partial shutdown. For four weeks starting at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, St. Louis County residents should leave home only for specific purposes. They must also form “support bubbles” with 10 or fewer family members or friends, and limit all interactions to that group.

Page, like Garza, called it a “safer at home” order.

“I wish this wasn’t where we had to go, but it is,” Page said. “The virus continues to rage across our country and across our community.”

He said it could have been avoided if there had been a national strategy to control the virus.

Other area leaders did not follow suit.

Brinker insisted that there is essentially a mask mandate in Franklin County.

“We haven’t written it, pen on paper,” he said. But the county requests that residents mask up in public, quarantine when exposed and space out gatherings.

Besides, he said, cases are rising in counties with mask mandates. “Is it going to make the difference that we need made right now?” he asked. “Because it’s been proven not to. You’re living in St. Louis County now, are you not? And has it worked?”

St. Louis County added 930 new cases on Friday; Franklin County added 96.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said his administration has been trying to educate people on the need to voluntarily wear masks, wash hands, socially distance and stay away from small gatherings.

“I’m going to assume that what we’ve got here is a lot of COVID fatigue,” he said. County residents “were doing the right thing” for months, he said. So the county is working now on mass mailings, social media messaging, even billboards. “It’s a critical time and we need to do the right thing.”

COVID police?

But Ehlmann said mask mandates are impossible to enforce.

“Have the COVID police shown up and told them, put a mask on?” he asked. “Isn’t what they’re doing basically voluntary anyway?”

In St. Louis, Krewson on Friday said the city would not issue new restrictions, after announcing an order Thursday that will limit private gatherings to no more than 10 people.

The city has recorded a far lower rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita than surrounding counties, she said, and most new COVID-19 cases in St. Louis were linked to small social gatherings, not businesses.

“We’re trying to put the restrictions where we know the problem to be,” Krewson said. “We based this order that we issued on the data. ... If that changes, of course we are always going to continue to consider all the other options.”

Recent spikes in COVID-19 cases were traced to small gatherings around Halloween, Krewson said, warning against similar gatherings for the Thanksgiving holiday.

But St. Louis County’s actions on Friday generated some quick support — even among restaurateurs.

The Breakaway Cafe in Bel-Nor, a neighborhood restaurant near the University of Missouri-St. Louis, will have its last night of indoor dining on Saturday, pare back its menu, and pivot to takeout orders, owner Matt Quinlisk said Friday. He may set up some heat lamps on the cafe’s small patio for outdoor dining.

“I’m not opposed to this,” he said. “If everyone sticks with the program, we can put this behind us in the next month.”

Dan Schultz, general manager of Fallon’s Bar & Grill in Olivette, called for a statewide shutdown.

“The folks who are doing the right thing,” he said, “are the ones who are being punished the most.”

Surviving the first shutdown was hard on staff, he said. Another will be painful.

“I live one mile from the bridge to St. Charles,” he said. Chain restaurants there are “packed to the gills” on a Tuesday night.

“And I’m over here spaced out,” he continued, “and have 15 people in on the same night.”

Nassim Benchaabane of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Bryce Gray • 314-340-8307 @_BryceGray on Twitter bgray@post-dispatch.com

‘Virus is winning,’ task force warns as leaders urge Missouri governor to take action

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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.

Related to this story

In this impending nightmare, people who desperately need medical care can’t get it because there isn’t enough space, staff or resources. We aren’t just talking about COVID patients; if a hospital is at capacity, it can’t take victims of heart attacks, strokes or car accidents, either.

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