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COVID case spike has St. Louis hospitals stretched thin

Dr. Clay Dunagan now heads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.
Barnes-Jewish Hospital
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Dr. Clay Dunagan now heads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

When Dr. Clay Dunagan began leading the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force this past July, it was the delta variant of the coronavirus that was garnering attention, along with reinstated mask mandates. Now, just six months later, omicron is in the headlines. The crisis is ongoing — and the St. Louis area is seeing increases in COVID-10 cases reminiscent of last fall’s spike.

Over the past weekend alone, the region’s four major health systems reported a combined 18 deaths. And the seven-day average of cases in the area has doubled over the past month.

“I don’t see anything in the near future that suggests we’re going to avoid another pretty significant stress on the health system,” Dunagan told host Sarah Fenske during Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Earlier in the week, the task force reported an average staffed bed hospital capacity of 89%, with ICUs at 77%. The amount of reserve capacity is a concern, Dunagan said.

“The system resources have been stretched pretty severely — staffing is a real challenge,” said Dunagan, who is also chief clinical officer for BJC Healthcare. “There are a number of people who have left the workforce because of just natural attrition and the stresses of the pandemic. And we’ve had to fall back on agencies, which are very expensive. And even the agencies are having trouble filling some of their spots now.”

Not everything has been doom and gloom — since Dunagan took over the task force post, there have been some hopeful developments as well, with children 5 and older becoming eligible for vaccination. And, Dunagan said, the region has seen “some decrease in mortality rates.”

He attributes that to a “better understanding of how to care for patients, as well as the impact of vaccinations in the most vulnerable patient populations.”

But overall, Dunagan expressed deep concerns — especially within a political context where the state attorney general has threatened legal action against school districts and other entities with mask mandates.

“I think it’s a very unfortunate emphasis that’s being put in this pandemic,” the doctor said. “We have some clear and pressing problems, and I think that that’s diverting attention away from very necessary steps that individuals can take to mitigate their risk of coming down with COVID and to protect those around them who may not have as healthy an immune system or may have other illnesses that compromise them.”

He added: “I know people are very tired of the new advice about continuing to mask and to stay socially distant, but that’s really the best protection we have until people get vaccinated, and right now we simply don’t have the level of vaccinations in the communities we need to protect against spread.”

Dunagan also offered reasons for optimism. For him, vaccinations are first and foremost in that.

“I think people who’ve already availed themselves of that should feel confident that their chances of a serious outcome are substantially reduced. I think we can also be optimistic that as people have more experience with this, as the pandemic drones on, [and] we see more and more people vaccinated without significant impact on them, that we’ll continue to get converts,” he said. “People start to realize that the sensible thing to do is to get vaccinated.”

Dunagan noted that Dr. Alex Garza, the former pandemic task force head, is just back from his four-month deployment to Kuwait and will soon begin sharing responsibilities for the task force.

“I think we’re both looking forward to a continued partnership,” Dunagan said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.