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

"Nearly all the people who are fully vaccinated will avoid serious illness and hospitalization," Dr. Garza said, "these are just the facts."

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force provided its first briefing in almost a month as the delta variant of the coronavirus takes hold in the southwestern portion of the state.

The task force released a recorded briefing from Dr. Alex Garza Friday afternoon. You can watch it in the player above.

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

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

On June 9, there were 93 COVID-positive patients in St. Louis area hospitals. On Friday, that number had more than doubled to 211. Dr. Garza said the number of hospitalized patients is increasing at a "rapid pace." 

"The virus is winning this round because the highly contagious delta variant of COVID has established a foothold and it's spreading rapidly," Dr. Garza said.

Dr. Garza said the fact that the virus is spreading quickly during the summer is even more concerning. He said the ability to be outside more often should help slow the spread, but the numbers are still increasing.

He said the people now getting infected are "almost exclusively unvaccinated."

"Nearly all the people who are fully vaccinated will avoid serious illness and hospitalization," Dr. Garza said, "these are just the facts."

Dr. Garza said unvaccinated people need to continue to wear a mask and social distance. He said unvaccinated people are now at much greater risk than before because of the spreadability of the delta variant.

Dr. Garza said getting vaccinated is vital for keeping the delta variant at bay and preventing another variant from developing.

"Every time the virus jumps from one person to another, it has the potential to mutate into something that is much harder for our vaccines to address," he said. "Wearing a mask now will pay off later for all of those that want businesses to get back to normal."

Dr. Garza said hospitalizations are increasing as a result of cases increasing in the St. Louis area. According to task force data, cases are up 37.5% in the last two weeks when compared to the previous two weeks. That is the highest rate of increase since last November.

The task force's hospitalization data includes transfers from other hospitals, but Dr. Garza said that has not been a major contributor to the increase.

About 15% of the cases currently in area hospitals are from outside the St. Louis area, about the same percentage as other parts of the pandemic.

Going forward, Dr. Garza predicted the pandemic will continue to worsen in the area.

"Because we are behind in vaccinations and because we have this variant we are most likely going to see a continued rise in cases and hospitalizations," he said. Remember, curves turn slowly in the pandemic, so we're dealing with patients that were infected two weeks ago."

The following data are the combined figures from the four major health systems (BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health, St. Luke’s Hospital) that are part of the task force, for July 9.

  • New hospital admissions (data lagged two days) decreased – from 47 Thursday to 45 Friday.
  • The seven-day moving average of hospital admissions (data lagged two days) increased – from 30 Thursday to 33 Friday.
  • The seven-day moving average of hospitalizations increased – from 160 Thursday to 171 Friday.
  • Inpatient confirmed COVID positive hospitalizations increased – from 188 Thursday to 211 Friday.
  • Inpatient suspected COVID positive hospitalizations remained the same at 26 Friday.
  • The number of confirmed COVID positive patients in the ICUs increased – from 65 Thursday to 66 Friday.
  • The number of confirmed COVID positive patients on ventilators decreased - from 39 Thursday to 38 Friday.
  • The number of COVID deaths increased – from 0 Thursday to 2 Friday.
  • The seven-day moving average of COVID deaths remained the same at 1.
  • Across the system hospitals, 25 patients have been discharged over the past five days, bringing the cumulative number of COVID-19 patients discharged to 23,302.
  • Today, staffed bed hospital capacity is at 91%, an average across our task force hospitals. The ICUs are at 84% 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 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.

"This is my final plea, my final briefing as I head out of town," Dr. Garza said. "So please, please, everybody that is eligible, talk with your loved ones, talk with your health care providers, get the evidence, get the evidence that is verifiable, and then please go out and get vaccinated, it's really the only way that we are going to be able to get out of this pandemic."

Dr. Dunagan will lead his first briefing next Thursday.

Hospitalizations in the southwestern portion of the state are nearing the highest point of the pandemic, leading hospital leaders this week to renew pleas for people to get vaccinated in hopes of preventing another surge.

RELATED: Mercy St. Louis sending ventilators to Springfield as hospitalizations spike in Missouri

Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth, on Thursday tweeted that within a month the delta variant could spread and hit other areas of the state just as hard as southwest Missouri.

“Begging people to take the vaccine while there is still time,” Edwards tweeted. “If you could see the exhaustion in the eyes of our nurses who keep zipping up body bags, we beg you.”

On Friday, state epidemiologist Dr. George Turabelidze warned the delta variant is spreading from mostly rural areas to larger populations and health officials don't expect the surge to "turn around quickly" unless more people are vaccinated.

The state health department this week issued a hot spot advisory for three Lake of the Ozarks-area counties: Camden, Miller and Morgan. The agency predicted those areas could be the next to get hit hard with the delta variant because of spread from the southwest Missouri region.

RELATED: Health officials fear delta variant could surge in other parts of Missouri within a month

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