CoronavirusFeaturedNewsThe SouthSider

Virus claims Missouri boy, 13; hospital CEOs raise concerns

(AP) — Missouri hospital leaders are raising alarms about bed capacity as coronavirus cases continue to spike, with some urging Gov. Mike Parson to issue a statewide mask mandate.

Meanwhile, an eastern Missouri eighth-grader died days after his COVID-19 diagnosis, the state’s first child under age 14 to die since the onset of the pandemic. Washington School District Superintendent Lori VanLeer said in a statement that 13-year-old Peyton Baumgarth died over the weekend, less than two weeks after he last attended classes.

The National Center for Health Statistics report for Oct. 28 cited just 80 deaths nationwide among children ages 14 or younger.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson was somber in her livestreamed press conference Monday afternoon.

“I have to tell you, our numbers are really not good,” she warned.  Last week the city had 504 new cases, versus 270 cases in the week ending Oct. 11. The lowest week for the city, seven weeks ago, tallied just 203 cases.

The average daily number of people being hospitalized in the area is now 59.

“We are having a lot more community spread,” she noted. It’s happening in homes, among family members and close associates in small groups. Krewson said that Dr. Fredrick Echols, the city’s acting health director, expects to see an uptick after Halloween get-togethers; and fraternity parties on college campuses are also a concern.

The highest percentages of infection are still among people in their 20s and 30s.

The 63116, 63109, 63139 and 63118 ZIP codes are leading the COVID-19 surge, she said. More testing is being offered, and more cases are turning up.

“There’s literally not a nook or a cranny of this city that it’s not affecting,” she said.

Missouri, like many Midwestern states, is seeing a big rise in COVID-19 cases, and many of the illnesses are severe enough to require hospitalization. The state health department on Monday cited 1,659 hospitalizations statewide, eclipsing by 10 the previous record set a day earlier. The state also cited 2,651 more confirmed cases and five additional deaths. All told, Missouri has reported 188,186 confirmed cases and 3,031 deaths from the virus.

The city of St. Louis had tallied 8,686 cases by Sunday, with 129 additional suspected cases and 214 deaths.

“Honestly,” Krewson acknowledged, “there’s no rule that we can put in place that can keep people from getting together with their neighbors at their house or in their backyard.” She asked residents to think about the coming holidays – Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, with Christmas and New Year’s following – and plan ways to keep celebrations as safe as possible.

“Please, get serious about this,” Krewson implored her listeners.

The pandemic is now also ravaging rural areas of the state. Leaders of several rural hospitals expressed their worries Thursday during a conference call with the governor, a Republican. The call caught the attention of State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, who is opposing Parson in the election Tuesday.

“Healthcare workers from across Missouri are pleading for Governor Parson to take action to fight the virus — and he is doing nothing,” a news release from Galloway’s campaign said.

Parson allowed Missouri to reopen on June 16 without mask or social distancing requirements, though several jurisdictions have implemented their own guidelines. He has repeatedly urged Missourians to take personal responsibility and to wear a mask and take other precautions when necessary.

During the call coordinated by the Missouri Hospital Association, Parson said he was confident a vaccine would soon be available. But Texas County Memorial Hospital Chief Executive Officer Wesley Murray questioned if there was a plan to address the rising number of illnesses.

Dr. Wesley Willeford, medical director of the Jefferson County Department of Health
“It feels like all of our eggs are in the basket of the vaccine waiting to come,” Murray said, citing how few people in his community were wearing masks in public.

“We’ve got to urge them strongly to wear masks and things, and they’re not willing to do it,” Murray said. “That point’s not getting across somehow.”

Parson was noncommittal.

“Every day we’re going to fight this virus,” Parson said on the call. “We’re going to do what we can to help and still maintain a balanced approach.”

Some CEOs said the smaller hospitals are struggling to find larger facilities to accept transfer patients. Even patients with medical conditions unrelated to COVID-19 are being denied, they said.

“It’s taken us five or six calls to find an institution that will take a patient,” said Jeff Tindle, CEO of a small hospital in Carroll County.

Part of the problem is that the larger urban hospitals also are filling quickly. Richard J. Liekweg, president and CEO of St. Louis-based BJC HealthCare, said coronavirus-related hospitalizations within the BJC system peaked at 255 in April, dropped to 70 in July and are now above 200 again.

“What’s different now is the rest of our beds are completely full,” Liekweg said. BJC is in the process of deciding if it needs to begin canceling elective procedures, he said.

Parson’s spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, cited on Monday data showing that hospital beds were still largely available.

“If hospital beds are needed, we know that we can construct an alternate care site in 11 days with the help of the Missouri National Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Jones said in an email.

Dr. Randall Williams
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams, also on the call, said it was clear that the virus “has moved to rural areas.” He said too many people were gathering with friends and relatives without taking precautions.

“They let their guard down because it’s all people they know,” Williams said, noting that the state was “doubling down on our message” to act responsibly. staff contributed to this report.

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