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'We have two weapons': Task force says masks and vaccinations will be key in preventing spike similar to southwest Missouri

"At this point, we don’t see any evidence that we are likely to see a different trajectory (than southwest Missouri) unless we take some aggressive actions"

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force resumed its live weekly briefings Thursday. It was the first briefing led by Dr. Clay Dunagan. He is taking over the briefings for Dr. Alex Garza, who was deployed to Kuwait as a member of the Army Reserves.

You can watch the briefing in the video player above.

In Thursday's briefing, Dr. Dunagan said the region is starting to see case rates similar to that of southwest Missouri.

"At this point, we don’t see any evidence that we are likely to see a different trajectory (than southwest Missouri) unless we take some aggressive actions," he said.

Among those aggressive actions are a significant increase in vaccinations and an increase in masking.

“We have two weapons, vaccination and masking,” he said.

Dr. Dunagan said although some counties in the St. Louis area have relatively high vaccination rates when compared to the surrounding areas, all counties are a long way from the 70% of the total population needed for herd immunity. 

Even in the higher vaccination counties like St. Louis County and St. Charles county, there are still communities in those counties that could be vulnerable due to low vaccination rates.

"In St. Louis County, for example, the vaccination rates are — in the highest places — in the 80 or 90 percent range. In the lowest neighborhoods, we’re down in ranges that are very similar to what happened in some of the counties of southwest Missouri," he said. "And for that reason, those regions can expect to see that steep upturn in cases that was experienced by our fellow citizens outstate."

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page launched initiatives earlier this week to increase vaccination rates in those neighborhoods.

RELATED: St. Louis County launching vaccine effort with barbershops, beauty salons

Dr. Dunagan said the other weapon against the spread of the virus, masking, has decreased in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

He said even if everyone in the region decided they were going to get a vaccine as soon as possible, it would take weeks to see the effects of immunity. So, until vaccination rates reach a level that will provide herd immunity, he said masking rates need to increase.

“In March, when we saw very strong control of COVID, we were in the 80-plus percent range (for masking), and by the most recent numbers, we were below 30%. We really need to see that number rise, and that can be accomplished by having many people mask all of the time or all of the people mask some of the time.

"Whatever we can do to get people to wear masks as much as possible will be a good step towards halting spread while we continue to work on vaccination rates."

Last week, the task force released a recorded briefing from Dr. Alex Garza to discuss the coronavirus pandemic in southwestern Missouri and in the St. Louis area.

"Today, I am disappointed to tell you that once again we are losing ground to the virus," Dr. Garza said.

RELATED: 'We're losing ground to this virus': Task Force provides briefing as delta variant fuels COVID-19 spike in Missouri

On June 14, the task force held what it hoped would be its final weekly briefing, as hospitalizations neared their lowest point since the beginning of the pandemic. In the weeks since then, cases and hospitalizations in the region have increased.

On Wednesday, the task force reported 242 hospitalizations — up from 180 last Wednesday — and a seven-day average of 222 — up from 160 last Wednesday.

On Thursday, that number increased to 255, the highest since March 2.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force released the following data slides, combining figures from the four major health systems (BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health, St. Luke’s Hospital) that are part of the task force.

The data for July 15, 2021, is as follows:

  • New hospital admissions (data lagged two days) increased – from 42 yesterday to 49 today.
  • The seven-day moving average of hospital admissions (data lagged two days) increased – from 39 yesterday to 40 today.
  • The seven-day moving average of hospitalizations increased – from 222 yesterday to 231 today.
  • Inpatient confirmed COVID positive hospitalizations increased – from 242 yesterday to 255 today.
  • Inpatient suspected COVID positive hospitalizations increased – from 23 yesterday to 34 today.
  • The number of confirmed COVID-positive patients in the ICUs increased – from 82 yesterday to 88 today.
  • The number of confirmed COVID-positive patients on ventilators increased from 45 yesterday to 51 today.
  • The number of COVID deaths decreased– from 4 yesterday to 0 today.
  • The seven-day moving average of COVID deaths remained the same at 3 today.
  • Across the system hospitals, 31 patients have been discharged, bringing the cumulative number of COVID-19 patients discharged to 23,477.
  • Today, staffed bed hospital capacity is at 93% an average across our task force hospitals. The ICU’s are at 79% of their total staffed bed capacity.

Going forward, the task force briefings will be led by Dr. Clay Dunagan, the chief clinical officer for BJC. Dr. Garza — who has led the briefings since the beginning of the pandemic — is deploying to Kuwait as a member of the Army Reserves, where he will serve as an emergency room physician on a military base there.

Missouri's health department on Thursday 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 is potentially 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

RELATED: COVID-19 cases in Missouri reach highest level since January