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COVID questions abound
This chart on the Show Me Strong dashboards shows the peaks and valleys of COVID hospitalizations in Missouri.

By Shari Harris, Publisher

Last week’s frigid temperatures and potential for inclement weather occurred at an opportune time for local school districts, as many dismissed classes beginning Wednesday. The break came as students and staff were battling a variety of illnesses, including COVID, influenza and other viruses. Though student attendance at Licking R-VIII on Monday, January 24, had returned to a high level, 11 staff members were still sick, according to Supt. Cristina Wright.

Different methods of establishing the return-to-school date by primary care physicians (PCPs) has school administrators wishing for consistency. Some PCPs add the five-day exclusion for COVID onto the date of the positive test, and some add it onto the date symptoms were noticed.

As health departments and clinics have become busier, many people are testing at home or not testing at all when they become ill. An accurate count of COVID cases is impossible to obtain. However, hospitalization data on the Show Me Strong Dashboard shows the highest number of COVID hospitalizations yet. The 3,839 Missouri COVID hospitalizations on January 21 far exceed the previous peak of 2,862 on December 22, 2020.

During November and December of 2020, there were more total ICU beds and hospital beds than currently. Staffing must be available for beds to be counted. It is difficult to determine whether the decrease in bed numbers is due to a lack of staffing or due to a push to increase the number of ICU beds during the spike at the end of 2020. The total number of ICU beds peaked at 3,061 on November 18, 2020, as compared to 2,685 on January 20, 2022. Total hospital beds peaked at 20,817 on October 21, 2020, compared to 15,376 on January 20, 2022. So COVID patients are filling more hospital beds now than ever before in Missouri, and the total number of beds is not as high as it was at the end of 2020. This leaves even fewer beds available for other illnesses.

In the meantime, the battle over vaccinations of healthcare employees continued in court this month. On January 13, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the authority of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to establish a healthcare worker vaccination rule in all facilities that participate in Medicare & Medicaid. These healthcare workers must complete the vaccination series or obtain an exemption by Feb. 28, 2022. The same day, the Supreme Court denied the OSHA Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard for businesses with more than 100 employees.

“Parents and families, not bureaucrats, should have the power to decide what’s best for their children,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said. On January 21, he filed a lawsuit against several school districts in Missouri for having mask mandates. More districts were added to the list on January 24. Conversely, in Virginia, parents are suing a state official as they fight their governor, whose executive order overruled their mask policies and made masks optional in school.

If you’re having trouble keeping up, you’re in good company.

With COVID cases and hospitalizations soaring across the state, now health care leaders are asking people to reserve their use of hospital emergency departments for emergency needs only. COVID testing and illnesses that can be cared for at urgent care clinics, primary care physicians or walk-in clinics should be taken to those settings to free up emergency room staff to treat severe illness or life-threatening conditions.

“Chest pain, stroke symptoms, physical trauma or severe illness absolutely require emergency care,” said Jon D. Doolittle, President and CEO of the Missouri Hospital Association. “Unfortunately, the patient surge — from demand for COVID-19 testing and care, as well as other normal seasonal increases in hospital utilization — is causing hospital ED waiting rooms to fill up.”

Four free COVID tests can be ordered for every home in the U.S. at if you have a residential address. However, if your mailing address is registered as a business address instead of a residence, the online registration for the tests may not work.

The Biden administration has announced it is sending 400 million N95 face masks to give out free through pharmacies and community health centers. CVS, Walgreen and Walmart are among the pharmacies that will offer three free N95 masks to each person. The caveat is the phrase “while supplies last,” and how truly accessible they are in rural areas, for multiple reasons.

Sewer shed reports show the Omicron variant has arrived in rural Missouri. Whether it is a crisis in healthcare or a godsend in providing “herd immunity” may become more clear in the weeks and months to come. COVID certainly has our citizens at loggerheads over questions of rights and responsibilities.

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