ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Dr. Alex Garza of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Friday called on Governor Mike Parson and the state of Missouri to do more to combat the spread of COVID-19, calling for a statewide mask mandate and a safer-at-home policy.
It was Garza's most direct public plea to the governor to implement stricter policies to stop the spread. Garza called the virus' spread "incredible" and said if the current trends keep up, St. Louis hospitals will see double the amount of patients in just two weeks.
"At that point we would not have the capacity we need to sufficiently care for our patients - not just COVID patients - but all patients," Garza said. "The best time to act was really yesterday. But a good time to act is now."
St. Louis hospitalization levels have steadily risen over the last few weeks.
As of Thursday, 681 people were in St. Louis area hospitals with confirmed COVID-19. Another 165 people in the hospital are suspected of having the virus, but test results are pending.
"The number of people so ill that they have to go to the hospital is NEARLY three times what we described as a sustainable level," Garza said. "The number of people with COVID in our intensive care units is higher than ever. The weather is getting colder and it could not come at a worst time.
The 681 people in the hospital is the most since the virus outbreak began in March.
"These will be the most challenging months in the pandemic," Garza said. "The virus is spreading too quickly... make no mistake we are at war." The virus is winning, he said.
The task force called for a statewide mask mandate and safer at home orders, while once again imploring elected officials to take action.
"Healthcare systems across the state need Governor Parson and the state to take additional action to prevent unnecessary illnesses and deaths. We need the state to act if we want to keep the economy functioning and keep schools in person."
According to the task force's projection, the region will run out of ICU capacity in the first week of December if nothing changes.
"Our healthcare heroes have fought valiantly, day after day, but we have no reserves. We have no back-up that we can suddenly muster to come in and save the day," Garza said.
"I am not a dramatic guy, but this scares me"
The issue of mandatory masks has been fraught across the state, with critics calling it government overreach and an infringement on personal rights.
However Garza's colleagues spoke passionately Friday, saying a refusal to wear masks is dangerous to everyone.
"The individuals who say it's their personal liberty not to wear a mask are actually doing something that's a fundamental violation of the norms of society" said Dr. Clay Dunagan, an infections disease specialist with BJC Healthcare. "There's nothing about the country that says it's okay for people to do things that put other people's health at risk. Not wearing a mask is one of those things."
Gov. Parson has stood firmly against mandating mask usage statewide, instead saying the decision must be made at the local level. He has repeatedly said it is about personal responsibility for each individual and not his place to enforce such a rule.
However Garza pointed to the task force's data, which he said demonstrates that masks are clearly effective at slowing the spread of the virus.
"There is no safe harbor," Garza said, when asked if there are some counties controlling the virus better than others. "Clearly when we look at the data, when you look at St. Louis City and St. Louis County their rise in cases has been lower than the surrounding community because of the mandatory mask order."
"I am not a dramatic guy, but this scares me," Garza said, closing his prepared remarks.
In response, Kelli Jones, Communication Director for Governor Parson said, "Governor Mike Parson has led with a balanced approach since day one of this pandemic and will continue to do so. He and his administration monitor data and work closely with the Missouri Hospital Association and our panel of infectious disease doctors to monitor the statewide health care system and capacity. Our entire administration is here to support our health care workers and health care delivery system. Missouri’s COVID-19 numbers are up and continue to increase. It is imperative that Missourians take personal responsibility and social distance, wear a mask, practice personal hygiene, and limit their gatherings.
Governor Parson has been very clear and consistent about his support for local control. Every individual MUST take action to minimize the spread of COVID-19.”