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'The nightmare scenario we feared': Hospitals see record COVID patients amid staffing shortages

Task force leaders said the virus is winning, and the fear is that things will get worse before they get better over the next couple weeks.

ST. LOUIS — A surging number of COVID-19 patients combined with fatigued, short-staffed medical teams is leading to a “nightmare scenario” for the St. Louis area.

St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force leaders said Wednesday the virus is winning, and the fear is that things will get worse before they get better over the next couple weeks.

“We’re really getting crushed by this virus right now,” said task force leader Dr. Alex Garza. “In many ways, this is the nightmare scenario we feared when we couldn’t choke off the virus completely last year. So instead of going away, the virus really evolved and it’s again in control.”

More record-breaking numbers

The latest data from the task force paint another record-breaking picture. On Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations climbed again to 1,114 patients. The seven-day average is 915, which is expected to continue climbing, said task force leader Dr. Clay Dunagan.

Credit: KSDK

To put that into context, task force hospitals had fewer than 300 hospitalizations in November – and leaders were worried at that point because they could see the direction cases were trending. Two months later, task force hospitals are at almost four times the number they were initially concerned about.

“The numbers are climbing at an alarming pace,” Dr. Dunagan said. “It would be easy for us to hit double the current number within the next couple weeks. The projections for what are happening are literally off the charts that we were using.”

Watch the task force's full briefing in the video below:

Also concerning is the number of children being treated in task force hospitals for the virus. As of Wednesday, there are 56 child hospitalizations with 16 of those children being in the ICU.

“This is way above anything we’ve seen at any other point in the pandemic,” Dr. Dunagan said. “Really, about double our previous high total.”

Obstacles in fighting the surge

The rapid increase in patients is straining already tight-strapped hospitals. Dunagan, Garza and other task force hospital leaders all said health care workers are drained, both physically and mentally.

Hospitals are dealing with staffing shortages. Resources previously used to backfill positions are in short supply of workers. And health care workers themselves are testing positive or having to take time off of work to care for loved ones who have the virus.

“This surge is unlike any one we’ve seen before,” said Mercy South Chief Medical Officer Dr. Aamina Akhtar. “The volume they’re seeing along with diminished labor capacity really paints what I would describe as a horrific outlook currently.”

LIST: COVID testing sites in the St. Louis area

The stress on the health care system also is putting a toll on workers’ mental health. Dr. Akhtar said she’s heard of several health care workers developing PTSD due to the ongoing waves of stress from the pandemic.

“To say medical workers are tired or fatigued is an understatement. We have been physically challenged beyond words,” she said, stressing the longer hours needed to work with fewer resources and more patients.

Hospitals themselves are in short supply of space – and beds.

“The inn is full; there’s no safe harbor,” said Dr. Dunagan.

To help shift resources to where they’re needed most, BJC announced Wednesday it is temporarily postponing elective surgeries beginning Jan. 6.

How to help fight COVID

Vaccination continues to be the most effective weapon in the fight against the omicron variant’s surge through St. Louis, Dr. Garza said. And if possible get boosted, he added.

Garza acknowledged how some patients in the hospital are vaccinated. He said most of those patients have “serious underlying conditions that made them susceptible to infections.” Dr. Garza also said a very small percentage of hospital patients have had their booster.

Besides vaccination, the task force leader said other mitigation strategies, like masking, need to continue, especially in an effort to keep schools open.

The CDC also continues to stress the importance of getting tested, social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks when in outdoor crowded situations or inside when around those who aren’t vaccinated or you don’t know someone’s vaccination status.

'Unchartered waters'

Dr. Garza ended Wednesday’s hour-long briefing and question-and-answer session with reporters by stressing the seriousness of the situation.

“We seem like we’re calm, cool and collected people, which we are, but behind the scenes we’re quite frightened about what we’re experiencing and what we’re seeing,” Dr. Garza stated. “We’re in uncharted waters right now when it comes to the volume of patients and the stress on the health care system.”

“Behind the scenes, we’re panicked,” he said, asking for the entire St. Louis community’s help in fighting the spread of COVID-19.

Task force data for Jan. 5:

- New hospital admissions (data lagged two days) increased – from 176 yesterday to 213 today. *New daily admissions record

- The seven-day moving average of hospital admissions (data lagged two days) increased – from 168 yesterday to 179 today. *New seven-day moving average record

- The seven-day moving average of hospitalizations increased – from 858 yesterday to 915 today.

- Inpatient confirmed COVID positive hospitalizations increased – from 1023 yesterday to 1114 today. *New daily hospitalization record

- Inpatient suspected COVID positive hospitalizations decreased – from 59 yesterday to 50 today.

- The number of confirmed COVID positive patients in the ICU increased – from 178 yesterday 198 today.

- The number of confirmed COVID positive patients on ventilators increased – from 111 yesterday to 120 today.

- 10 COVID deaths are being reported today.

- The seven-day moving average of COVID deaths remained the same at 10 today.

- Across the system hospitals, 151 patients were discharged yesterday bringing the cumulative number of COVID-19 patients discharged to 33,673.

- Of the 1040 hospitalized COVID patients in the three reporting Task Force hospital systems today – 321 are fully vaccinated. That’s 31% of the patient population.

- There are 30 COVID positive children who are 0-11 years of age in Task Force hospitals.

- There are 26 COVID positive children who are 12-18 years of age in Task Force hospitals.

- There are 12 COVID positive children who are 0-11 years of age and in the ICU.

- There are 4 COVID positive children who are 12-18 years of age and in the ICU.

Wednesday's staffed bed hospital capacity is at an 89% average across task force hospitals. The ICUs are at 82% of their total staffed bed capacity.