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St. Louis area COVID-19 hospitalizations up 30% in 8 days, ICU patients doubled in less than a month

The head of the task force said vaccination is the best way to slow the increases, and mask-wearing would provide a "bridge" until vaccination rates improve

ST. LOUIS — COVID-19 hospitalizations in the St. Louis area continue to increase and are nearing the highest numbers seen in the area since February.

The added stress on the healthcare system could lead to changes for our area's largest hospitals, including scaling back the number of visitors allowed per patient or limiting the types of procedures performed.

On Thursday, the task force reported 398 COVID-19 patients in area hospitals, a 30% increase from the 300 reported eight days earlier and more than double the 188 reported on July 8. The task force said 92% of staffed hospital beds are filled.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 patients needing critical care in the ICU has doubled in less than a month as well. On Thursday, 111 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 were in the ICU. On July 6, that number was 53. 

During Tuesday's briefing, task force leader Dr. Clay Dunagan said the increase in COVID-19 patients means most of the hospital systems in the St. Louis area will probably have to limit the types of procedures they are doing, similar to what hospitals in the southwestern portion of the state have had to do.

"What that means practically is if you have an emergent healthcare need — you may be in a car wreck or have a heart attack or stroke — and you may find yourself needing to wait or be transferred before you can receive care because the nearest hospital may be at full capacity," Dr. Dunagan said.

In the most recent briefing, the task force provided their projections for both hospitalizations and COVID-confirmed ICU patients. It provides what the task force calls its "best guess" of where the region is heading in the near future as well as a worst-case scenario called the "upper bound" and a best-case scenario called the "lower bound."

When comparing the current hospitalization trends, the St. Louis area falls between the task force's "upper bound" line and "best guess" line. The "upper bound" line projects around 1700 COVID-19 hospitalizations by the middle of September, and the "best guess" line projects around 700 by the middle of September. Both estimates show the cases continuing on an upward trajectory past that date.

The ICU census data has tracked along the task force's best guess line, which currently projects the region to have about 230 COVID-19 patients in the ICU by the middle of September. The highest number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in area ICUs was 205 in April of 2020.

"I'm looking at these numbers with some alarm," Dr. Dunagan said Tuesday. "The path forward looks like it may equal or it could exceed what we experienced in the holidays unless we take some preventive action."

On Tuesday, Dr. Dunagan said the region can take measures to prevent the projected increases. He said the most important thing is to get vaccinated, but building immunity from vaccines can take weeks, and vaccination rates have slowed in recent weeks.

Dr. Dunagan said mask-wearing could provide a "bridge" for the region until vaccination rates improve.

"Vaccination is the most important tool for getting us out of COVID permanently," Dr. Dunagan said. "It is something that, once we get to sufficient levels, the virus will stop circulating and we can put this behind us for some time. But until we get there we're going to need to resort to masks to prevent spread."

As of Thursday, St. Louis County and St. Charles County have the highest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the region at 45.3% and 44.9% respectively. The statewide average for Missouri is 41.1%.