State eyes ways to ease COVID-19 strain on hospitals

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Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday the state's health care system is meeting the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, but his administration is looking at how to relieve strain off large hospitals by expanding the capacity of rural hospitals to handle more COVID-19 patients.

In possibly his last briefing before the Nov. 3 election, Parson also said state offices will be closed the Friday after Thanksgiving.

He did not take questions from reporters during his virtual briefing broadcast from Springfield - a decision for which he received criticism from the state's Democratic party.

On the pandemic, Parson said the seven-day average for the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state is "roughly 1,400."

Hospitalizations are rising throughout the state, including in Jefferson City.

The state's seven-day average for COVID-19 hospitalizations - 1,480 as of Oct. 25 - has risen almost 73 percent since July 23, according to data on the state's online pandemic dashboard, and the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in intensive care has risen more than 85 percent in the same time.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that St. Louis and Columbia were seeing record hospitalizations, with the Kansas City area having its worst-ever month for COVID-19 deaths.

A metropolitan pandemic task force in St. Louis reported hospitals there being at 85 percent capacity, with intensive care units at 75 percent capacity.

"However, I want to assure you that overall, our health care system is still meeting the demand," Parson said during his briefing.

Of 22,000 total hospital beds in the state, he said, 49 percent were available, as was nearly 70 percent of ventilators.

Citing Springfield as an example, Parson did say a lot of patients are being transferred in from surrounding smaller communities, and his administration is looking at ways for rural hospitals to handle more COVID-19 patients.

Specifically, he cited an "Echo" program at the University of Missouri.

Show-Me ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) is a telemedicine program at MU that "uses videoconferencing to connect interdisciplinary teams of experts with primary care providers and other professionals. They collaborate in interactive case-based learning to develop advanced skills and best practices, which improves patient care access, quality and efficiency," according to the program's online description.

Parson said, "Our health care workers, rural and urban, have been on the front lines for almost eight straight months. They are tired and overwhelmed, but they continue to rise to the challenge and take care of Missourians. We cannot thank them enough for their efforts, and we will continue doing everything we can to support them."

Later in the briefing, Parson said state offices would be closed the Friday after Thanksgiving.

He's done the same thing in 2018 and 2019 by executive order, though as of about 5:15 p.m. Thursday, there was not yet any such order listed on the governor's office website among other executive orders issued this year.

Parson said, "We hope that our state workers can take this time to rest and spend time with family and loved ones."

He also said election officials are doing everything possible to make sure Missourians can vote next week safely and securely, and the state's economy is recovering well.

He pointed people to a web page highlighting the state's responses to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Andrew Storey, spokesperson for the Missouri Democratic Party, criticized Parson in a statement for not taking questions - which were to be responded to via email by the spokeswoman for Parson's office - calling it "a blatant effort to avoid being transparent with the people of Missouri about the state of the virus."