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'Scared of what's coming': Health care workers across St. Louis warn of rising COVID-19 infections

'Scared of what's coming': Health care workers across St. Louis warn of rising COVID-19 infections


EARTH CITY — At a somber and sometimes emotional press conference Monday, hospital officials and health care workers implored St. Louis area residents to take simple precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as case numbers and hospital admissions surge.

Dr. Aamina Akhtar, an infectious disease specialist and the chief medical officer of Mercy Hospital South, said health care workers are tired and frightened.

“We’re starting to see our resources being depleted, whether it’s nursing labor, physician labor, the bed capacity in our hospitals,” Akhtar said. “We’re scared of what’s coming.”

Dr. Alex Garza, who leads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said the region is at an inflection point. Local hospitals, on average, are at around 90% capacity, Garza said.

“If we continue down the path we are on right now,” he cautioned, “if we don’t start listening to science and wear a mask, stop gathering in large crowds, things could potentially get much worse.”

The task force reported a seven-day average of 360 COVID-19 patients in metro area hospitals, a level not seen since mid-May. The seven-day average of new COVID-19 admissions was 52, the highest since early April.

“Think about what this means to you and your family member, if you get sick,” Garza said. “Will there be a hospital to be able to care for you? Will they have space for your family member? Will the doctors, and the nurses, and the techs be on top of their game, or will they be exhausted and fatigued?”

Garza said earlier in the pandemic, the region was not seeing as many patients transferred in from outlying areas. But recently, with rising infections in rural areas, that has changed.

“There was a little bit of a forgiveness factor,” Garza said. “But now there’s no safe place. We’re getting patients from everywhere. We have requests for transfers from hundreds of miles away.”

Bed availability also depends on the number of staff members who can care for the patients in those beds. Hospitals are having trouble filling nursing positions, because nurses are in high demand across the nation.

“That just means you’re just putting it on the shoulders of the people that are there right now, and that’s completely unfair,” Garza said.

Appearing with Garza at the news conference were local residents whose lives have been changed forever by the coronavirus, he said.

Charlie Johnson, a nurse who works for BJC Healthcare, said the pandemic has meant burnout, frustration and anxiety for health care workers.

“I was in the military for six years. I spent 20 years in law enforcement. And this is different, this pandemic,” Johnson said.

“Wear your mask, wash your hands … ensure that you social distance,” Johnson said. “We as health care professionals will not lose this fight, and we’re committed to taking care of you.”

Jennifer Duffey, whose mother died of COVID-19 in September, pleaded tearfully with residents to wear masks, and to speak up when they see others without them.

“I don’t understand why it is so hard to sacrifice, to wear a mask, if it can save somebody else like my mother,” Duffey said. “Our ask of you is to please wear a mask, and be careful … be patient with the sacrifices we all have to make.”

Dr. Clay Dunagan, BJC chief clinical officer, said Monday that the case numbers in the region have continued to rise, and hospitalization and ICU numbers tend to follow that trend by two to three weeks.

“So we already know by looking, we’re not going to be seeing relief for at least a couple of weeks,” Dunagan said.

Dunagan said local hospitals have largely been receiving patient transfers from hospitals across Missouri, but some patients are coming from southern Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

There have been days when Barnes-Jewish Hospital has been unable to take patient transfers, Dunagan said, and there has been some pulling back of elective care. He added that, based on the regional case numbers, there is a chance that elective care will be restricted further.

“I think we’re all concerned about the potential to have enough COVID cases that reducing elective care is not enough,” Dunagan said.

Local restaurant owner Gerard Craft also spoke at the news conference. He delivered the same message about masks, but from the point of a businessman.

“If you want the economy to get going again, wear a mask,” Craft urged. He predicted that more than 40% of restaurants would shutter because of the pandemic.

“All this is just business,” he said. “... Of course, I don’t want to lose my business. But the real, real issue is the people. We cannot keep throwing human lives away because we are afraid to put a mask on our face. It seems so silly to even say it out loud, and I never, ever could have imagined that this would have been the biggest problem we faced in this pandemic.”

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