Deadly week for COVID in Monroe County

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On the heels of three such deaths reported Wednesday, the Monroe County Health Department reported three more COVID deaths Friday. 

Monroe County’s overall COVID death toll now sits at 117. The Illinois Department of Public Health has not yet added the three most recent deaths to its count.

Of the six most recent deaths, two were in their 70s, three were in their 80s and one was in their 90s. Four were in congregate care facilities.

As Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner explained, the health department does not know the specifics of each incident classified as a “COVID death.” When COVID-19 is listed on a death certificate, the death is labeled a COVID death. This means COVID may not be considered the cause of death, but may have played a contributing role.

Despite the climbing deaths, Wagner said it seems the active coronavirus case count may have decreased the past few days. Because the state’s reporting system is experiencing difficulties, Wagner is inferring this from what he is hearing from local schools, community calls and the state’s overarching data.

According to the most recent Illinois Department of Public Health data, Monroe County saw 51 positive COVID tests out of 227 tested Jan. 18, placing the daily test positivity rate at 22.5 percent that day.

Wagner cautioned this metric does not include tests taken across the river or unreported ones taken at home.

Wagner said the number of Monroe Countians currently hospitalized is not known.

One thing is clear, though: St. Louis-area hospitals are still stretched to the limits with COVID-positive patients and other complications. 

On Friday, the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force reported there were 1,362 COVID-positive individuals hospitalized within BJC Health Care, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital health care systems. The daily ICU census of COVID-positive individuals was 209, with 121 of these patients requiring ventilators. 

Of those hospitalized with COVID in the region, most are unvaccinated. The vast majority of those hospitalized who are vaccinated have not received boosters, the task force has said.

There were 32 children ages 11 and under hospitalized in the St. Louis area Friday, with five being in the ICU and 23 children ages 12-18 hospitalized with six being in the ICU, the task force reported. 

In Tuesday’s task force press briefing, Dr. Alex Garza of SSM Health said that while these figures seem to be an improvement from earlier days, they are “still maintaining a significant level that’s having an impact on our children’s hospitals.” 

“You couple that with the really low uptake of pediatric immunizations and we’ll probably continue to see this number fluctuating around that 50-60 mark for the foreseeable future as well,” Garza continued. 

During the same briefing, Dr. Clay Dunagan from BJC Healthcare explained that while the number of new cases appears to be slowing, he cannot definitively state the pandemic itself is calming down. 

“It looks like the number of new cases appearing each day is slowing down a bit and may be leveling off. It’s too soon to say that for certain and we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and even if it is starting to slow down, remember that there are hundreds of people in the hospital and will be for weeks to come as we get down on the backside of this,” Dunagan said. 

Toward the end of last week, the number of new daily hospital admissions between the four health care systems in the region was in the 200s. 

On Friday this figure was 194, but was lower earlier in the week.

“While we’re seeing some positive signs, we have a long way to go,” Dunagan said. “The pressure on the health system is unprecedented, our ability to meet those demands is really compromised by the various shortages and staffing challenges we have, so this is not a time to relax and say we’re done with it.” 

Dunagan explained that not only are hospitals short-staffed as an already small workforce is facing potential illness, but so are EMS workers. This can lead to a delay in ambulance services both for transfers and for 911 calls. 

At the same time, hospitals are seeing supply chain issues and a blood shortage

Other updates

Come early February, nearly 400 million free N95 masks will be available to adults at pharmacies and community health centers. The president announced the program, which The Washington Post reported would be the “largest deployment of personal protection equipment in U.S. History, as many experts verified these masks are those with the highest level of protection. Americans can now receive four free at-home COVID rapid tests per home through covidtests.gov

The federal government’s site went live Tuesday and operated at limited capacity. On Wednesday, the site will make its official launch.

Last month, the federal government said it would provide COVID tests through the mail at no cost as the Omicron variant was causing cases, and therefore the need for testing, to rise. 

Wagner said those who show any COVID symptoms but are not able to find a test should stay home for five days from the onset of symptoms. After these five days, one should wear a mask when in public for 10 days.

Wagner explained the CDC’s updated guidance states one should quarantine five days from the onset of symptoms or, if they are asymptomatic, five days from their test date. 

The Illinois State Board of Education and IDPH recently applied this new standard to schools and updated its guidance to reflect such. 

Now, those who test positive for COVID-19 must be excluded from school for at least five days from the onset date of symptoms or, if asymptomatic, five days from their test date. 

Symptomatic individuals who test positive for COVID may return to school after five days, provided they are fever free for 24 hours (without the help of medicine), if vomiting or diarrhea has stopped for 24 hours and if other symptoms have improved. 

Those deemed close contacts who are not eligible for test-to-stay must be excluded from school for a minimum of five days following exposure. 

Fully vaccinated students and “boosted” school personnel do not need to be excluded from school as close contacts. 

All school personnel and students must continue to mask at all times. 

Since the holiday season, schools across the nation are struggling to keep doors open due to large numbers of staff absences. Many were hoping applying the five-day exclusion period would help relieve this problem, as it meant COVID-positive individuals could possibly return to school sooner. 

However, Wagner said it has not completely alleviated the problem. 

“It’s helping the schools some, they’re still struggling with teachers and getting enough teachers to have classes … they’re able to stay open, but it’s not school as usual,” Wagner said, later continuing that with numbers being so high, it is still difficult for schools to be fully staffed. 

 Wagner said the health department is planning vaccine clinics for the end of this month. The dates, times and locations of such clinics have not yet been confirmed. To find a vaccine location near you, click here. To schedule a vaccine appointment through BJC Healthcare, click here.

At Tuesday’s pediatric clinic (ages 5-11) held at Rock City in Valmeyer, approximately 40 vaccine doses were administered, Wagner said. 

According to Friday’s IDPH data, 59.43 percent (20,404 residents) of Monroe County’s eligible population is fully vaccinated and 9,798 booster doses have been administered. 

Three new U.S.-based studies support findings from other countries’ research that booster doses are effective against the Omicron variant, the AP reported. One of the studies, which overlapped with the Delta and Omicron surge, found boosters helped protect individuals from dying from both variants.

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