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As holidays approach, take coronavirus precautions, head of pandemic task force urges

As holidays approach, take coronavirus precautions, head of pandemic task force urges

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BJC begins vaccinating frontline caregivers

Dr. Clay Dunagan, chief clinical officer at BJC HealthCare, gets a COVID-19 vaccination on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, from Denise Murphy, chief nurse executive also at BJC, at the Washington University School of Medicine's campus in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — With coronavirus cases on the rise in the region and the holidays approaching, the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Tuesday urged residents to focus on COVID-19 prevention.

That means getting vaccinations and booster shots for all who are eligible and wearing a mask, said Dr. Clay Dunagan, the acting head of the task force who is also the chief clinical officer for BJC HealthCare and an infectious disease expert at Washington University.

“St. Louis County and city remain under a mask order, which I think is a really prudent thing to do right now with cases expanding in the region and the holiday season coming up,” Dunagan said during the weekly task force briefing. “This is a time when people should be very careful about the risk of transmitting COVID to other family members, other relations and friends who might be visiting for the holidays.”

Dunagan’s warning about an uptick in cases came one day after St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said rising caseloads once again had moved the county into a federal “high” risk category for community transmission.

With Pfizer’s COVID vaccine approved in the U.S. for children ages 5-11, Dunagan encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated or, for those who are hesitant, to talk with their pediatrician or family doctor.

“We have lots of data accumulated that there is very little risk to the vaccines,” he said. “What we do know is that getting COVID is not risk-free for kids.”

Just as with adults, children must receive two doses of the coronavirus vaccine about two weeks apart. Pfizer’s vaccine is the only one approved for children in the U.S. so far. A person is considered fully vaccinated about two weeks after the last dose.

Dunagan also urged those who are eligible to consider a COVID booster six months after their last COVID vaccination, especially those with conditions that put them at a heightened risk of complications from the virus.

“I think there’s little question that the booster shot provides additional immunity,” he said.

The recommendation came the same day that The New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration could act later this week to authorize Pfizer’s vaccine booster for all adults. Currently, boosters are advised for those 65 and older or those with underlying medical conditions or who are at risk because of their jobs. Moderna, which along with Johnson & Johnson also has an FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine, is expected to seek FDA authorization for all adults for its booster in the near future.

Vaccinations in Missouri and Illinois lag those of the nation, which has seen about 69% receive at least one dose. In Missouri, about 58% have received at least one dose, while in Illinois it is about 67%, according to New York Times data.

As of Tuesday in the St. Louis region, about 250 people were hospitalized in medical facilities that are part of the task force. Of those, 58 were in intensive care units and 32 were on ventilators, Dunagan said. About 10 of the patients on Tuesday were children, and three of those were in the ICU.

Along with COVID case numbers, hospitalizations have risen somewhat but have been relatively stable recently, he added.

“It’s a little too early to see if that’s going to be a sustained trend, but I think there’s growing evidence that we won’t see hospitalizations increase as swiftly as case rates,” he said.

Of those hospitalized, less than a third are breakthrough cases.

“The majority of people we are seeing come into the hospital, and particularly winding up in the ICU or on ventilators, are unvaccinated individuals,” he said.

Dunagan also made a plea for residents to get a flu shot, noting that while influenza cases have been minimal so far, they appear to be on the rise.

“If you have not been vaccinated for influenza, now it the time to do it,” he said.

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