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Region’s coronavirus caseload has stalled, leaving experts worried: Are we dropping our guard too soon?

Region’s coronavirus caseload has stalled, leaving experts worried: Are we dropping our guard too soon?

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Six Flags St. Louis opens for 2021 season

Zaidyn Reese, 5, wears a mask as he plays in bubbles at the Six Flags St. Louis Spring Break opening celebration March 28, 2021. The celebration featured prizes, a dance party and hula hoops. The park opened for the 2021 and is enforcing safety measure like mask wearing and social distancing. Photo by Sara Diggins, sdiggins@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — Even as vaccinations across the region gain momentum, progress against the coronavirus has faltered. Weeks of plunging COVID-19 transmission rates in the metro area and Missouri have given way to a stubbornly steady rate of new daily cases, leaving experts worried that residents are dropping their guard too soon, and that caseloads could soon rise again.

“Every time you think this pandemic is going to keep going down, it throws you a new curve ball,” Dr. Alex Garza, the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch. “There’s always some new sort of challenge.”

The number of daily new coronavirus infections fell precipitously after a peak in January. Missouri’s seven-day average dropped below 500 a day last month, for the first time since last summer. At the same time, the St. Louis region’s daily average hospital admissions tumbled to 35, the lowest in eight months.

And vaccinations are progressing apace. The region is now on track to reach widespread immunity by late June — with about 75% of the adult population vaccinated — an expectation weeks better than mid-August estimates made just last month.

Yet state and regional caseloads and hospitalizations have now stalled at current levels for about four weeks.

They aren’t really rising. But they’re not really falling, either.

And that has put experts on edge. Has the region collectively left its mask in its pocket? Thrown out social distancing? Invited friends back to the house?

“Everyone is in this prevention-methods burnout phase,” said Tim Wiemken, a St. Louis University professor and infectious disease expert. “The weather is getting nicer and people are just over it.”

Experts outline a combination of likely contributors for the stubborn rates. A main reason, they agree, is a relaxation of infection prevention strategies — like diligent mask wearing and social distancing. At the same time, more infectious versions of the virus, such as the U.K. variant, may be adding to caseloads.

Regardless, the trend now adds urgency to the push to vaccinate as many people as possible.

“That’s the race here, and it’s neck and neck for the foreseeable future,” said Wiemken.

Chris Prener, a sociologist at St. Louis University, has closely tracked coronavirus case data throughout the pandemic. He said he hasn’t seen marked spikes of caseloads in recent weeks.

Sometimes there are blips, he said.

“Every time one of these increases happens, I’m watching it very closely,” Prener said. “We don’t know if that is the beginning of something more sustained.”

But they haven’t been so far, he said.

Still, there are some concerning signs.

Area health officials this week said they’ve seen a small rise in the rate of positive coronavirus tests.

And that worried Garza.

“It’s a little bit concerning that we’re creeping up with this number,” he said. “This is usually a leading indicator for other things, such as hospitalizations.”

Dramatic spikes in infections can be found in some other places around the country, like Michigan, New Jersey and New York. Areas of Illinois — especially in the northwestern part of the state — are also experiencing a rebound of the virus and associated hospitalizations.

Last week, Illinois officials announced a targeted plan to accelerate vaccinations in the affected region, in order to “quickly blunt increasing trends.”

Experts say the virus’ persistent levels of transmission illustrate the importance of masks, social distancing, and hand-washing.

As certain populations — particularly older residents — have gotten vaccinated, risk has shifted toward younger age groups, who now account for a rising percentage of virus-related hospitalizations statewide, Garza said at a briefing this week.

The coronavirus will be tough to fully extinguish. Experts predict that it will smolder at low levels, and become a regular, circulating respiratory ailment.

“We’re not going to reach zero for quite some time,” said Garza. “If at all.”

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