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St. Louis-area health experts warn of uptick in COVID-19 cases

ST. LOUIS — Following a period with relatively few COVID-19 cases, experts are cautioning St. Louis-area residents about a recent increase in infections — and recommend that they plan to get the updated COVID-19 vaccine booster when it is released in the coming weeks

The COVID infection numbers are rising, though case rates and hospitalizations are still well below the levels of previous surges. Doctors recommend that residents take stock of their test kits and consider what preventive measures they take in crowded settings.

Dr. Kanika Cunningham, director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, said especially people who are older, have weakened immune systems or are pregnant may want to return to wearing a mask in public or in crowds.

“We have seen, over the last month, a slow, steady increase,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock, infectious disease physician and chief quality officer for BJC HealthCare. “I think it’s definitely time to take some precautions if you don’t want to have COVID right now because there is just a lot floating around in the community.”

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St. Louis County reported a seven-day average of 106 cases on Friday — compared to the lowest level this summer, an average of 15 seen in June. It’s a marked increase, though still well below the peaks in previous surges. The county hit an average of 442 cases during a wave last summer and 863 during the first winter of the pandemic, for example.

The region is armed with tools to prevent and treat COVID-19 — from tests and masks to vaccines and medications. At the same time, it has become more difficult for residents to know when there is an increase in cases in their area.

Some of the health agencies that regularly published data on cases and hospitalizations have stopped. When they do, the numbers are often viewed as low estimates because of the widespread use of at-home tests, which aren’t usually reported to doctors. And since the public health emergency declaration for COVID-19 expired in May, some medical providers are no longer required to report test results to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s hard for people to know when there really is an increase — and there really is an increase,” Babcock said.

In wastewater data, Illinois shows rising levels of COVID-19 in many locations. Missouri shows stable virus levels in about two-thirds of its sewer testing locations and increases in about one-third.

So far in August, BJC’s daily COVID census has averaged 37 patients — up from 16 in July. Mercy reported a daily average of 31 patients for August, in its hospitals in the St. Louis region, up from 17 in July.

Marc Johnson, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Medicine who is involved with the state’s wastewater testing efforts, said that while virus levels aren’t as high as previous surges, they are “moving in the wrong direction.”

“It kind of reminds me of where we were last year,” he said.

Experts said residents should make sure they have tests stocked up at home, and double-check expiration dates before throwing out test kits. In some cases, the Food and Drug Administration has extended the expiration dates beyond the ones printed on the boxes. People can check the FDA website to see if their kit can still be used.

Babcock said it’s unclear whether COVID-19 is slipping into a more predictable, seasonal pattern. During the pandemic there have usually been surges in summer and more extreme surges in winter.

“We have a few years’ experience to go on, and each year has been a little different,” Babcock said.

The county health department gives out test kits for free at its three health clinics and at some libraries. People who are symptomatic or require assistance can go to the John C. Murphy Health Center at 6121 North Hanley Road, park in one of the designated parking spots on the left side of the building, and call the number posted on the sign. More information is available on the department website.

A new COVI-19 vaccine is set to be released next month amidst rising cases of the “Eris” variant, a form of the Omicron variant.

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