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Federal aid team coming to assist St. Louis hospitals as they deal with 'the most challenging disaster ever faced'

"The current COVID-19 surge is the most challenging disaster ever faced by the healthcare systems within the St. Louis region."

ST. LOUIS — A federal aid team with about 40 members is coming to help the St. Louis area's largest hospital systems as they deal with a surge in patients due to the omicron variant of COVID-19.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, which encompasses the four major health systems in the area, requested assistance from the federal government. Those systems include BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital.

In a letter, the task force lays out the grueling climate the hospital systems face because of the omicron variant.

In part it reads, "The current COVID-19 surge is the most challenging disaster ever faced by the healthcare systems within the St. Louis region. We have attempted to weather this storm alone; however, we are now at the point where we must request assistance from the Federal Government."

The task force leaders pointed out the record-breaking admissions and hospitalizations.

On Thursday night, a task force spokeswoman confirmed that the aid was approved. The spokeswoman said they are still working on the specifics, including what the team's work will entail. She said more information should be available in the coming days.

The latest numbers from the task force show the seven-day moving average of hospitalizations increased from 1,360 Monday to 1,374 Tuesday. This hit a new seven-day moving average record. 

A new daily hospitalization record also was set for confirmed COVID-positive hospitalizations, increasing from 1,377 Monday to 1,444 Tuesday. 

Credit: St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force

The letter continues, "With every passing hour our community is at greater risk, not only from the spread of Omicron, but from the delayed or inaccessible care which it creates. In addition, our health care workers are not immune to this virus, falling ill themselves or having to miss work to care for a sick family member. This has placed unimaginable strain on our ability to care for the ill and injured."

BJC Healthcare even limited elective procedures for the time being due to the lack of staff. SSM Health also limited some of its procedures, as well. 

The task force's plea also shared that the current resources are stretched beyond their limits to deliver effective and safe care, calling it unsustainable. 

That's why the St. Louis health care systems are requesting federal help to support staffing throughout our regional hospitals.

"Our hope is that our Federal partners swiftly deploy resources to help our depleted and demoralized workforce," the letter reads. 

With the task force is Dr. Alex Garza, who says if the team comes, "It will be all patient care - doctors, nurses, and medics. Rather than dispersing a small amount across the geography, they’ll want to concentrate them in specific areas, so they can have the most affect in the region."

This also comes at a time when it's all hands on deck.

Just like other hospital systems, Mercy is asking co-workers in non-patient care jobs to sign up and help with tasks outside their usual job descriptions, such as stocking and refreshing supplies, transporting patients, and assisting patients with daily care activities.

Overall, the health systems remain committed to serve, but the letter says, the hospitals need the full support of the federal government to continue their mission. 

In December, President Joe Biden announced new action to protect Americans and help communities and hospitals battle omicron. In a White House Fact Sheet, Pres. Biden shared his plan of deploying additional medical personnel and expanding hospital capacity.

At the end of 2021, Missouri Governor Mike Parson allowed the state of emergency related to the pandemic to expire, citing vaccine availability.

"The State stands ready to provide assistance and response, but there is no longer a need for a state of emergency," Parson said in the press release.

The COVID-19 emergency orders allowed hospitals to bridge staffing gaps by shortening the onboarding time, turning hospital rooms into intensive care units, and expanding capacity to operate with more beds than they’re legally licensed.

Missouri Hospital Association represents all the hospitals in the state and it does education and advocacy on its behalf. 

Spokesperson Dave Dillon says within 24 hours of this expiration, they were able to put in some waivers with the Department of Health and Senior Services that would allow some functions to continue. 

But Dr. Garza shares there are some hurdles still left. 

"The Missouri National Guard can’t be used for any COVID missions and it limits that ability at a staff standpoint," he says.

Dr. Garza says if a Federal team came in, it could take less than a week to identify where the team would go.

From there, it would take a little bit of time before they officially can get boots on the ground.

As far as others getting assistance, right now, there is a federal team placed in Kansas City.

Read the task force's full letter requesting aid in the document below: