Missouri surpasses 1,000 deaths as statewide rise in COVID-19 cases leaves hospitals wary
ST. LOUIS — Hospital officials here reported on Tuesday an abrupt bump in COVID-19 hospitalizations, on the heels of a sharp statewide increase in the number of cases over the past two weeks, leading hospital officials to fear that more sick patients will soon come through their doors.
Between Monday and Tuesday, the daily number of new patients admitted to area hospitals nearly doubled, according to data from the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.
“It is possible that with lifting restrictions on movement in the community, that if case numbers start going up and keep going up, that we could end up with more cases than in the first wave,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock, an infectious disease specialist at BJC HealthCare and Washington University School of Medicine.
Some of the biggest jumps have been in southwest Missouri and around Joplin, where counties are seeing cases more than double. The Kansas City area is also seeing more new cases than ever.
A resurgence could mean cutting back on elective procedures once again or returning to stricter visitor policies, Babcock said. On Monday, BJC joined the region’s other health systems in relaxing visitor restrictions.
The increasing numbers statewide are concerning, Babcock said. So are the big increases seen in other states, where Missourians could travel.
The state’s seven-day average of new positive cases on Tuesday was 425, according to analyses by the Post-Dispatch. This is a jump from two weeks earlier on June 16, when the average was just 214.
The four largest recorded numbers of new cases in Missouri all appeared in the past week: 553 on Thursday, 493 on Friday, 468 on Monday, and 508 on Tuesday.
And on Tuesday, the death toll from COVID-19 in the state surpassed 1,000. The total went from 998 to 1,015.
Gov. Mike Parson started his daily press conference by addressing the grim milestone.
“I think we should all remember that that virus is still out there, and we still gotta do our job to face the fact that it’s out there,” Parson said. “We have to take all the safety precautions you can as individuals.”
Missouri sees rising new cases
St. Louis area hospitals may be starting to see the impact of the rise in cases. Between Monday and Tuesday, the daily number of new hospitalizations rose from 16 to 28, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. The seven-day moving average of hospitalizations, however, stayed the same at 137.
Dr. Alex Garza, chief medical officer with SSM Health and head of the task force, said in a statement that the recent rise in cases is likely a combination of more testing along with increased transmission in the community.
He added that the health care systems have seen an uptick in the percentage of positive tests, which could be a signal of increased transmission within the community.
And recently, hospitals have seen a higher percentage of younger COVID-19 patients than in the past, said Babcock, of BJC.
In mid-April, the average age of Missourians with new COVID-19 cases was 56, according the Missouri Hospital Association. By June 20, the average age had dropped to just 38.
These patients are not as sick, so the strain on hospitals in terms of intensity of care and length of stay is not as severe.
But that could change.
“Most of them are in contact with some people who are at higher risk for complications, so we anticipate that will lead to an increase in patients needing hospitalized care as well,” Babcock said.
Garza said that hospital data is often “lagging,” so the increase may not appear for a couple of weeks as more vulnerable people are exposed, infected and ultimately require hospitalization.
“This is why it is incredibly important for everyone to wear a mask, regardless of your personal risk for becoming ill from COVID,” he said in a statement.
Garza also said that younger COVID-19 patients are usually at lower risk for hospitalization, which may be another reason why the data hasn’t shown a consistent increase in hospitalizations.
Garza said the health care systems have learned a lot of lessons and developed better protocols and treatments since the pandemic began. He said he is confident that the health systems can handle an increase in COVID-19 patients.
“However the key is to not have a surge of patients in the first place,” he added.
Hospitals remain wary
Missouri Hospital Association spokesman Dave Dillon said health systems in the state are not at capacity, or near it, but are closely monitoring the rising cases.
“All evidence points to the fact that we’re not headed in the right direction,” Dillon said.
Dr. Ankit Nahata, an intensive care physician at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, said the hospital on Friday closed its extra intensive care unit that it had scrambled to open at the start of the pandemic.
During its peak in April, the unit — designed for 10 patients — was holding up to 23 patients, Nahata said.
Even though the unit is closed, he said, they are keeping it at the ready.
“We have everything set up and ready to go when the second wave starts,” Nahata said. “The second wave, it’s not whether, it’s when. It is inevitable. Whether that happens in the fall or sooner, we don’t know.”
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