CoronavirusNewsThe NorthSider

St. Louis area ‘not as safe’ as Omicron COVID cases soar, health officials say

CLAYTON (AP) — St. Louis-area health officials said Thursday that the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus appeared to be fueling a surge in cases, and urged the public to avoid travel and gatherings.

“The community is not as safe as it was a month ago, and you should consider that as you plan your activities,” the St. Louis County health department said in a news release that encouraged vaccinations, booster shots and masking.

The county recorded 774 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the largest one-day total since early January. Another 593 new cases were recorded Tuesday.

The recent surge has driven the average daily count of new cases to 398, a 15.6% increase over the past week and a count well into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s high transmission threshold, the news release said.

The state’s first confirmed case of Omicron was detected earlier this month in a St. Louis resident. The variant also has been detected in low levels in wastewater samples collected this month at treatment facilities in Jackson County and St. Joseph. The next wastewater report is due Friday.

So far, the variant accounts for fewer than 1% of samples sequenced in Missouri, state health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said.

“We assume it is here in our communities, and prevalence of Omicron among samples being sequenced is highly likely in the coming days and weeks — it’s just not showing up yet,” Cox said.

St. Louis County officials said in the release that they believe it’s spreading here, “because of the sharp increase in new cases.” There is now so much demand for testing that appointments are required.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are also on the rise statewide, topping more than 2,000 this week, state data shows. That’s twice as many as in early November, but still well below peak hospitalization levels from last winter and the Delta-driven summer surge.

Steve Edwards, the CEO of CoxHealth in Springfield, tweeted this week that 95% of the patients there were unvaccinated and none of them had had a booster.

“Holiday gatherings will drive spread,” he said, urging vaccinations. “Stay safe. We continue to lose patients who falsely believed their immune system was strong enough.”

North Kansas City Hospital, which has seen its cases quadruple since last month, announced Friday that it was canceling in-person classes starting Jan. 3 in an effort to protect the community.

Dr. James Stewart, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said in a call with reporters last week that the hospital could beat its previous peak if the rise continued at the same pace.

“We are short on beds,” he said. “We are short on staff, and it’s going to be tough.”

Even as cases rise, many towns and organizations have been dropping mask requirements. The Springfield school district, which is the largest in the state, was the latest, announcing Wednesday that its mask mandate would end immediately. The district had planned to remove its mask mandate sometime in January but said that state Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s legal threats forced its timeline to move up.

Schmitt, a Republican, tweeted that the decision was a “huge win” for Springfield students. The district, however, said masks would still be “strongly encouraged.”

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