ST. LOUIS – The tone at the last regular news briefing of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force was close to victorious, but not quite.
Medical and political leaders said in a news conference Monday there was good reason to believe things were almost back to normal. They cautioned, though, that complete normality won’t come until more people get vaccinated.
“The pandemic is not over, but we’re entering a new phase, one that we can manage more effectively and safely than we were able to while the virus was raging,” said Dr. Alex Garza, incident commander of the task force.
The task force is halting the news briefings because of the sharp improvement of the pandemic, but the group will continue to provide information.
“A little more than 14 months ago, the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force was established to help us prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime challenge of a largely unknown, highly contagious virus that led to wanton destruction,” Garza said. The area’s biggest health care systems cooperated in the effort.
“Even in April of last year, it was becoming clear that some patients would have very minor symptoms, while some would end up on ventilators, and some would eventually die,” Garza recalled. “In short, we knew that we needed to act. We knew that we needed to act together, we knew that we needed to act quickly. And I’m very proud of the fact that the region did act quickly and came together to combat this threat.”
Since April of last year, 22,721 COVID-19 patients in the St. Louis area were discharged from hospitals and returned home. Since last October, there have been 2,047 deaths in the region – probably an undercount of the total number of deaths. Today, about 100 patients in the area are hospitalized with the disease.
“The arrival of highly effective and exceedingly safe vaccines has completely changed our fight against the virus,” Garza noted. “When we began to vaccinate people in large numbers, we saw a dramatic decline in admissions and deaths.”
In the region, nearly 1.8 million doses have been given out, Garza said. Of those, about 1 million have been the first dose and 800,000 were the second doses.
“Today, the war is not completely over,” he warned. “But the battlefield conditions have improved significantly.
“We can now get back to a new normal. We were not able to travel. We were not able to dine indoors. We were learning how to give each other haircuts at home. We were picking up home projects to do to keep busy.”
Dr. Aamina Akhtar, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer for Mercy Hospital South, said much was still left to do because of the presence of variants and the fact that many people still aren’t vaccinated.
“We need to remain vigilant,” Dr. Akhtar stressed. “Vaccination will keep us where we are. So we need to make sure that we stay alert and helping people get the resources to get vaccinated.”
With new variants, there could be a large spike in the fall, Garza said.
“There’s probably no greater emphasis we can place than on being vaccinated,” he emphasized. “People who are not vaccinated place themselves at risk and place their fellow citizens at risk.”
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones thanked all the people who helped fight the pandemic and said the only way to defeat it completely was for more people to be vaccinated.
“I want our region to come back stronger from this crisis,” Jones said. “We need an equitable recovery that reverses the decades of disinvestment.”
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said that seeing the steps mandated to control the pandemic were good decisions.
Page recalled that Garza had said at the beginning that we could all get through this together if we did our part.
He said, “Thank you to everyone who did their part.”