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story.lead_photo.caption People line up in their cars Thursday for COVID-19 testing outside of the Capital Region Physicians — Family Care building. There were three lanes full of cars waiting for testing that afternoon. Photo by Liv Paggiarino / News Tribune.

This article is free to all readers because it includes information important to the health and safety of our community.

St. Mary's Hospital staff learned Monday what it feels like to go through a COVID-19 pandemic "surge."

Dr. Lenora Adams, SSM Health regional vice president, said Thursday during an online Cole County Health Department news conference: "It was uncomfortable."

"We learned that within a very short period of time — even just an hour or two — we can exceed our hospital capacity," Adams said, "when we have a sudden influx of patients who require a very high level of care. For the moment things are pretty steady and remain stable."

Capital Region Medical Center also continues to see a large number of COVID-19 patients, according to Dr. Randall Haight, CRMC internal medicine specialist.

The patients account for a third to half of the hospital's admissions, Haight said.

Thursday morning, CRMC had 42 patients in its COVID-19 wards and Intensive Care Unit, he said.

CRMC generally is staffed to provide for 70-80 patients, Haight said. However, it is housing 90-100 patients.

"The problem usually is not space," Haight said. "The most difficult thing that we have is finding the nursing, the technicians, environmental services and nutritionists to support those beds."

The hospital has "asked a lot" of its staff to take care of patients, Haight said.

CRMC President Gaspare Calvaruso said Wednesday that the hospital had already seen 17 COVID-19 deaths in November, the same number as the entire month of October. And the 17 in October were more than all previous months.

CRMC's peak for COVID-19 in-patients was 45, according to Lindsay Huhman, the hospital's director of public relations and marketing.

The surge puts additional strain on staff, she said.

"Like many health care systems, we are experiencing staffing shortages. Our recruitment teams are working very hard to hire staff, but on-boarding does take time," Huhman said. "We are hiring more staff to hopefully stay prepared in the event of a rapid rise in hospitalizations due to holiday gatherings — which we implore those in our communities to limit as much as possible."

She said a rise in cases after the holidays would not be surprising.

Thursday's news conference was held to reiterate how important it is to practice personal hygiene, wear masks, avoid crowds and maintain social distance to avoid spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Cole County and Jefferson City leaders wished to express how important it is to protect people around you.

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The Jefferson City Council on Monday endorsed the Cole County and city advisory that the two entities jointly issued Nov. 12.

It is a call to action, said Mayor Carrie Tergin.

"With the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise, we need your help to slow the spread of the virus," Tergin read. "Cole County and the City of Jefferson are advising every person in Cole County to stay home if you are sick, physical distance from others outside your household, limit gatherings to a number that physical distancing can occur, avoid gatherings where physical distancing cannot be maintained, wear a mask if you are not able to physical distance or avoid gatherings, encourage telecommuting and physical distancing within office buildings, offer low-contact shopping alternatives including curbside and delivery, and increase distance between seating in restaurants."

Tergin asked that people reconsider plans that require gatherings.

She added that it is possible to shop with low-contact methods, buy online and pickup at stores, and shop curbside, delivery and takeout.

"You can still support local businesses in the lowest-contact method possible," she said.

The city and county statement is an advisory, not a mandate, she said.

"This is very strict and clear guidance and expectation. We are expecting everyone to help," Tergin said. "We need everyone to do their part to help in this messaging."

During Thursday's news conference, Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell said her department's website will have a change concerning reporting positive cases.

The way Cole County's case data are currently shared, the department reports positive cases on the days it receives the data (even if some of the reports come from several different days' collections of samples). The department may receive a collection of several days' worth of positive cases.

"We're going to start reporting those tests on the day they were tested," Campbell said. "So there will be a lag time in the reporting, but we feel like it's a more accurate picture of what's going on on that day."

Cole County has reported 4,844 total COVID-19 cases and 31 related deaths since the pandemic began, including 207 cases among long-term care facility residents, as of Wednesday evening.

The county Health Department recently stopped listing the number of cases considered active or in isolation on its online COVID-19 dashboard, after announcing last week a new approach to contact tracing where those who receive a positive test result are asked to immediately inform their close contacts directly — meaning the Health Department cannot accurately track isolation with self-reporting.

Details are being worked out, she said, but the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the National Guard will offer another free COVID-19 testing site in Cole County on Dec. 10.

This article was updated at 3:15 p.m. Nov. 19, 2020, with additional information.

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