Dr. Alex Garza

Dr. Alex Garza, Chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, listens as other doctors speak, during his daily update on the fight against the coronavirus in Earth City, Missouri on Friday, November 13, 2020. 

Record numbers of coronavirus hospitalizations have hospitals in the St. Louis area and throughout the country at the brink of disaster.

BJC HealthCare and Washington University announced Sunday that all of its 15 hospitals and ambulatory settings will halt some elective surgeries for at least eight weeks to make more room for COVID-19 patients. In a  letter to the public released by Richard J. Liekweg, BJC HealthCare president and CEO,  and Dr. Paul J. Scheel Jr., CEO of Washington University Physicians, they expressed their growing concern about the pandemic’s resurgence and staggering numbers in this area that led to their decision. 

“With the positive cases growing exponentially and our COVID-19 hospital admissions already the highest they have ever been, BJC HealthCare and Washington University Physicians are preparing now for how we will handle this inevitable surge of patients who we know will need our services. 

“As of Nov. 16, we are suspending some elective surgery and other procedures that can be postponed safely. We must take this drastic measure both to increase our hospital capacity and ensure we have the staff available to continue providing exceptional care for our patients. An available room means nothing if there is not a nurse at the bedside.”

Across the county,  coronavirus cases have surpassed 11 million and nearly a quarter-million deaths. CNN reported Sunday another 1 million COVID-19 cases in the past six days. The pandemic has not let up. The United States. has the most cases in the world.

Mask, distance, wash hands

Liekweg and Scheel also asked members of the public to support the health care providers by taking necessary protective measures. “There are clear steps to take that are proven to reduce the spread of the virus. As basic as it seems, our greatest protection against COVID-19 while we await a safe and effective vaccine is a mask – a piece of cloth worn over the mouth and nose.” 

“Social distancing of at least six feet is another basic defense. It is important to wear a mask even when you social distance. Frequently washing your hands or using hand sanitizer kills germs and prevents transmission. Avoiding large gatherings also makes a big impact,” the letter said.

“We know how tiresome and restrictive this is. We are all collectively weary of these measures. But, they continue to be our best defense and we must dig deeper to stay the course while the vaccines continue to be developed and produced.”  

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force has been reporting record numbers in its seven-day moving average of COVID-19 hospitalizations among the four systems that comprise the task force, BJC HealthCare, SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s Hospital. 

On Friday, Nov. 13, Dr. Alex Garza, Task Force incident commander and chief community health officer at SSM Health, said the number of people with the virus is skyrocketing in our region.

“For months, we’ve talked about a time when we would run out of options; a time when we have run out of space to care for sick patients; when our options would be limited; when the virus is hitting us so hard that the health care system that we have would be unable to address the people’s needs.

“That terrible time, gets closer with each passing minute, each passing hour, each passing day,” Garza said.

The number of people in our area with COVID-19 is three times above a “sustainable level,” he said. 

“The number of people in our intensive care units with COVID is higher than ever. The weather is getting colder and it could not come at a worse time,” Garza said. “The real peak of the pandemic has yet to come. At the pace we’re on now, we could easily, easily double the number of COVID patients in our hospitals in about two weeks. At that point, we will not have the capacity we need to sufficiently care for our patients. Not just COVID patients – but all patients.”

Task Force calls for statewide mask mandate 

Garza  said it is “beyond the time where individual behavior alone could address this disaster.” He said health care systems across Missouri need Gov. Mike Parson and the state to take additional action to prevent unnecessary illnesses and deaths. 

“We need the state to act if we want to ensure our hospitals, both rural and urban, won’t have to turn away sick patients.

“We need the state to act against the virus if we want to keep the economy functioning, and if we want to keep schools in-person,” Garza said.

“Today we are asking the state to initiate a statewide mask mandate for Missourians when they are out in public. Increasing the use of masks over the next several weeks statewide will slow the incredible pace of this virus. It will give health care systems and workers a chance to take a breath, to keep up and provide the appropriate level of care for our patients who so desperately need it.”

While he knows Parson has stated mask mandates should be handled at the local level, Garza said the breadth of the coronavirus pandemic makes us “one big county now,” because every day, COVID patients are crossing county lines to go to hospitals.

“The lack of a mask mandate in one county has implications for residents and health care professionals in other parts of the state, The spread and cases are blanketing the state and no locale is safe anymore,” he said. “A statewide mask mandate is needed to save lives across the state.”

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