National Guard administers COVID-19 tests in St. Charles

Cpl. Christopher White, center left, and National Guardsmen Lanthony Storey, center right, chat as they wait to prepare more COVID-19 testing kits at Family Arena in St. Charles on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Photo by Cheyenne Boone, cboone@post-dispatch.com

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JEFFERSON CITY — With St. Louis-area hospitals reporting record numbers of COVID-19 patients, members of the Missouri National Guard could soon be deployed to help relieve the pressure of staffing shortages in health care facilities.

The Missouri Hospital Association and Gov. Mike Parson’s administration are in discussions about various options aimed at addressing the toll the pandemic is taking on doctors, nurses and other workers involved in the surging number of cases.

“The governor is engaged on this. His team is looking at all options,” hospital association spokesman Dave Dillon said Friday.

Parson, in his weekly press briefing, called on Missourians to work harder to stem the spread of the deadly virus because of its effect on hospitals.

“Staffing is the major issue, not so much bed space. It’s the reality of having people to work in those hospitals,” Parson said.

“We’re looking at different avenues right now to bring in some support to them… whether that’s the use of military, some of their expertise,” Parson said.

His comments came as St. Louis-area hospitals reported on Thursday that they are caring for a record number of COVID-19 patients. One hospital network, SSM Health, announced it would bar visitors beginning Friday.

There were a record-high 849 virus patients in BJC HealthCare, SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke's Hospital facilities in the area, according the the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. There were also 150 patients with suspected COVID-19.

The seven-day average of new admissions hit a record high of 126. COVID-19 admissions here, on average, have doubled since the beginning of the month, and tripled since the beginning of October. The task force data lags two days.

Dillon said the National Guard could provide some relief in non-clinical roles, whether its directing traffic at a high capacity testing site or helping with the transfer of patients between hospitals and other care facilities.

“I don’t think we’re at a final solution for what those options are,” Dillon said.

But, he said, “The guard has been helpful in the past in roles that are not clinical.”

Parson also suggested the state could look at bringing in additional staff from other states, but Dillon said that may not be feasible.

“The real issue is that this is a national staffing crisis so the assets are very limited,” Dillon said.

Another option under consideration is recruiting nurses from other countries. That, however, will require work to ensure they have credentials and can make it through the immigration process.

In any case, Dillon said decisions will have to be made within the next few weeks if the state cannot lower capacity through social distancing, mask wearing and other practices.

“We cannot sustain the level of staff that are being sidelined because of the virus itself,” Dillon said.

Parson, who extended a state of emergency order Thursday to March 31, did not offer a timeline for when decisions will be made.

“Everything is on the table to try to figure out solutions on the staffing challenges,” the governor said.

Kurt Erickson • 573-556-6181

@KurtEricksonPD on Twitter

kerickson@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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