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‘Time of war’: Hospitals short of staff, ICU beds

St. Louis-area hospitals are seeing 20 patients die every day.

“That is 20 people a day who won’t be going back home to their loved ones,” Dr. Alex Garza, incident commander for the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said Monday in his regular briefing.

That number has tripled since October, he said, and the surge of deaths is completely consistent with the increase in cases and hospitalizations in the St. Louis metro area. 

On Friday, there were two intensive care unit beds available in the entire metro area, he said. The task force includes four major health care systems: BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St Luke’s Hospital.

These health care systems represent 2.8 million people in an area that encompasses surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois in the larger St. Louis region.

Now these hospitals are trying to double up patients in each ICU room, Garza said Monday.

“This is a time of war, and war requires sacrifice,” Garza said. “What we do outside the hospital is the only way to prevent our hospital staff and systems from becoming overwhelmed.”

Garza pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that was issued on Dec. 4, which urged people to postpone travel and avoid nonessential indoor spaces including restaurants and bars. The CDC deemed eating inside a restaurant a “high-risk scenario.”

While St. Louis County has prohibited indoor dining, the City of St. Louis has not.  

On Friday, Garza showed that the city’s new hospital admission rate was higher than St. Louis County’s. When asked if the city’s decision to keep indoor dining facilities open could have contributed to that difference, Garza said, “certainly it contributes some.”

“Anytime where you have the people coming together in a confined space, where they’re not wearing masks for a significant portion of that time — which we know does occur in in-dining facilities— that’s a high-risk environment,” Garza said.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force has asked the governor to issue a mask mandate and a safer-at-home order, which would encourage people to stay home except for essential trips out. Gov. Mike Parson, a Republicanm has consistently said he will not issue a statewide mask mandate or limit gatherings.

The more people stay at home and social distance, Garza said, the more the virus goes down.

“But we are still fighting the battle without all the weapons and tools that we need,” Garza said. “I hope this changes. Until it does, you are the best hope we have.”

When asked about the state’s program to provide additional staff to hospitals, Garza said that the program was just getting started. Hospital leaders were asked to provide the state by 2 p.m. on Friday with the number of staff members that they are requesting. 

“I will be clear, that doesn’t mean we are going to get staff from this contract,” Garza said. “It was made very clear to us that there’s no guarantee that we will get staff off of this contract.”

Garza said the health care systems were experienced in trying to recruit nurses from outside the area. 

But, he noted, “It is exceptionally challenging right now, and the rates are exorbitant.”

Read this article at the Missouri Independent.

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