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'Now is not the time to let our guard down' | St. Louis coronavirus task force says we haven't seen the worst of COVID-19

"We haven’t seen the worst of what the virus can do in our region," Dr. Garza said.

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis doctors leading an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the public updated on the virus situation said actions taken now could save — or cost — lives both now and down the line.

“We’re in the middle of what our modeling shows to be the initial crest of our first wave of infections,” said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. “So, now is not the time to let our guard down against the virus.”

Dr. Garza has been giving afternoon updates for the St. Louis area’s four major hospital systems for more than two weeks now. Several times during these updates he has referenced the 1918 influenza pandemic. St. Louis was a model city for enforcing social distancing measures. However, he said the city lifted restrictions too soon, leading to a devastating second wave of illnesses and deaths.

“That second wave was actually more devastating than the first wave here in St. Louis,” Dr. Garza said. “And that’s because some restrictions were removed at that time.”

He said this time the St. Louis area will have to “do things very smartly” but said that starts with remembering the COVID-19 curve is still on an upward trajectory. The St. Louis area isn’t expected to hit its peak until this Saturday.

“Even as other cities, regions and states talk about reopening some businesses and loosening their restrictions, we have to remain vigilant,” Dr. Garza stressed Thursday. “We haven’t seen the worst of what the virus can do in our region.”

RELATED: Peak of COVID-19 pandemic isn't the time to reopen businesses, St. Louis doctors say

Just about an hour before the task force gave its update, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced he would be extending the state’s stay-at-home order through May and will require nearly all residents to wear some kind of face covering out in public. Illinois isn’t expected to hit its peak until mid-May.

And shortly before the task force update, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said he would be releasing “broad” guidelines on some businesses in the state can reopen beginning May 4. Missouri’s stay-at-home order goes through May 3.

Leaders in both the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County have said stay-at-home orders are in place indefinitely, and they’ll likely be reevaluated in mid-May.

Dr. Garza said the orders and other social distancing measures are working – and should remain in place until data shows COVID-19 hospitalizations in the St. Louis area are trending down.

“Without a doubt very effective in slowing and preventing the spread of the virus in this region,” Dr. Garza said.

Meanwhile, Franklin County will begin letting some businesses open their doors again this Saturday, which is the same day the virus is expected to peak in the St. Louis region.

READ MORE: Movie theaters, gyms among Franklin County businesses allowed to reopen Friday

Dr. Garza said hospitals in the area are prepared for the peak.

“We’re as prepared as we can be. We’ve gained a lot of experience going through this pandemic. We’ve taken all the precautions we can,” he said. “We have our supply of PPE, we’re still operating underneath crisis standards, but we’re still there. But I believe we’re as prepared as we can be.”

Credit: St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force

The task force’s latest models, which were released last week, showed about 71,000 people in the Bi-state area would be infected with the coronavirus by the end of April. Dr. Garza said out of that number upwards of 30% — or 21,300 people — might not even know they have the virus and many others will have mild symptoms and won’t get tested.

More task force coverage: