CoronavirusNewsThe SouthSider

Officials warn of major surge in COVID-19 cases here

ST. LOUIS – With new cases of COVID-19 surging, an official of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force stressed on Thursday the need for masking up and getting vaccinated.

Dr. Clay Dunagan said in a Facebook presentation that a drop in vaccinations and wearing masks was combining with the new, more contagious Delta variant to fill hospital wards again.

That variant is about 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha variant that predominated last winter.

“These three things together are contributing to a new surge, a heavy surge, one that unless we can exercise corrective action is likely to equal what we experienced in the winter, or perhaps exceed it,” Dunagan said. 

“This isn’t simply a rural problem or a problem with underserved neighborhoods or a problem with any particular group,” he warned. 

Almost all patients coming into area hospitals haven’t been vaccinated, Dunagan noted. And of the few cases among vaccinated people, most are much milder.

Although some patients in St. Louis area hospitals have been transferred from other hospitals that are running out of resources, the majority of patients here are from this region.

Right now, 255 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in the St. Louis area. Of them, 90 are in ICUs and 50 of them are on ventilators. Those with the disease tend to be younger than before.

The number of cases per 100,000 has risen more quickly in southwestern Missouri than here, Dunagan said. But there are indications that this area is beginning to experience a similar rise.

Also on Thursday,  the Associated Press said Missouri’s health department reported the highest daily count of new COVID-19 cases since the dead of winter, and the association representing the state’s hospitals is warning that the health care system may be on the brink of a crisis.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services cited 2,302 newly confirmed cases of the virus, the largest one-day count since mid-January, as the Delta variant continues to spread in a state with one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates. Hospitalizations ticked up statewide by 47 to 1,331, as did the number of patients in intensive care units, rising by 19 to 409.

Nearly half of the ICU patients — 196 — are hospitalized in southwestern Missouri. Greene County and Springfield leaders are asking the state to fund an alternative care site, because hospitals in Springfield are near capacity.

Health officials issued a “hotspot advisory” Thursday noting a surge in COVID-19 cases in Greene, Jasper, McDonald, Newton and Barry counties, Joplin and surrounding areas.

State health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said that officials in the agency “are identifying available resources and options to meet the needs of our southwest communities, including matching resources to the request we received yesterday evening from Springfield.”

Meanwhile, St. Louis Acting Health Director Dr. Fredrick Echols says it’s time to do some gentle persuasion of the unvaccinated.

Echols told members of the city’s Joint Board of Health and Hospitals at a video meeting on Thursday that this population includes Blacks who are suspicious of medical advancements because of past experience, and white conservatives.

“How do we develop messaging that reaches both groups and transcends all populations within our jurisdiction?” Echols asked. 

“As we look at what’s happening, not only nationally and across the world, we have to really do a better job of engaging them,” Echols said. “And I think our engagement has to be really comprehensive. It can’t just be radio or media. It also has to be that one-on-one contact.”

Canvassers should go out into the community and listen to what people are saying, he said.

“The media portrayed things as individuals dropping like flies. And they went out to Walmart and said, ‘Hey, people are doing all right.’”

 Echols told the board that the city had experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks, particularly in north St. Louis and among African-Americans.

“We know that African-Americans continue to account for about 80 percent of the COVID-19 cases in the city of St. Louis,” Echols said.

Also, the number of COVID-19 cases among those who are age 19 or below has increased. In the past, there were more cases in the older population. The number of cases in people ages 20-59 has gone up.

According to the city Health Department website, on July 15, the average number of daily cases in St. Louis among African-Americans over the previous two weeks was 91.06 per 100,000. Among whites, the average was 22.92 per 100,000.

According to figures kept by The New York Times, the 14-day increase in new cases reported on Wednesday in Missouri was 79 percent. The total number of new cases on Wednesday was 2,155.

By contrast, 405 new cases were reported in Missouri on June 5.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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