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St. Louis pandemic task force ends weekly data updates

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 8/23/2022

Aug. 23—ST. LOUIS — Citing a decrease in demand for COVID-19 data and hospitals' "steady management" of virus patients, the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Monday said it will no longer publish weekly patient admissions and death numbers.

The most recent task force data showed nearly 300 people in the hospital with COVID-19 — a number similar to the summer of 2020. But now that the region is armed with vaccines and treatments, a smaller portion of those patients are requiring intensive care or ventilators.

"It's almost like we're in this détente with the virus," said Dr. Alex Garza, chief community health officer for SSM Health and co-leader of the task force. "It's not wreaking major havoc, but it's not going away either."

Cases and hospitalizations have been elevated for most of the summer and are beginning to show some early signs of improvement. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed St. Louis and St. Louis County at "medium" levels of community spread as of Monday.

The city of St. Louis' seven-day average receded to 69 in early August, the most recent finalized data, from a summer peak of 121 in mid-July. The county has also seen improvements, to 235 in mid-August, from 442 in early June.

Garza said the task force still meets regularly, though with a smaller group of people. The group has started discussing other public health issues beyond COVID-19, such as syphilis and monkeypox.

The task force is a coalition of local health leaders who have, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, coordinated resources and data and informed the public about the virus.

Garza held the group's first briefing in April 2020, and since then, the task force has tracked and reported COVID-19 patient admissions, censuses and deaths across area BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health, St. Luke's Hospital and U.S.Veterans Affairs hospitals.

The task force has released data and held press briefings with varying frequency over the course of the pandemic, updating the public more often when the virus was surging and during the vaccine rollout. For the past few months, the task force has not held regular briefings but has released hospitalization data each Monday on its Facebook page and to news outlets.

Though the weekly data updates have come to an end, the group will continue tracking the COVID-19 patient numbers, a spokeswoman said.

As of Aug. 15, the most recent task force data available, area hospitals were caring for a total of 290 COVID-19 patients and were admitting an average of 56 each day. The group reported 17 COVID-19 deaths over the previous week.

"We are thankful to our community for masking, social distancing, and getting vaccinated to help control the spread over the last two years," the task force said in a statement. "We know COVID-19 will never disappear; however, these steps continue to prove effective, as the numbers trend down or remain flat."

As the region approaches colder months, Garza said, there are more tools available now to prevent the overwhelming surges seen during the past two previous winters.

The population has built up immunity from vaccinations and previous infections. By this winter there will most likely be a vaccine available that specifically targets the omicron variant of the virus. And there are now antiviral drugs that help prevent COVID-19 infections from progressing to severe illness.

"Whether another variant suddenly shows up and completely scuttles all this, it's hard to say. If I'm taking all these things into balance, I would say that we'd most likely have a milder winter," Garza said.

"At a minimum, we have a lot more at our disposal to prevent a bad winter," he said.


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