Area hospitals are not yet at intensive care and isolation capacity due to COVID-19, and assuming a surge is on the way in the next few weeks, at least one hospital official believes the social distancing and isolation efforts of late could be starting to ward off the worst scenarios.

Charlie Shields, president and CEO of Truman Medical Centers, the area’s safety net hospitals, told the Jackson County Legislature on Monday there are 46 isolation units among the 350 beds at two hospitals – 11 units at the Lakewood hospital and 35 at Hospital Hill with the possibility of creating eight more. As of early Thursday, the hospitals had nine inpatient COVID-19 cases, with another 10 possible patients in isolation awaiting test results.

“The rate of (positive) return is fairly low,” Shields said Thursday. A negative-tested patient might still need treatment, but it changes the level of personal protective equipment required for medical workers. Given the nationwide shortages of certain PPE items, that becomes crucial.

“The faster you can get the turnaround with testing, the better,” Shields said.

Shields is also president of the Missouri Hospital Association, and as such has developed a good ear, especially in this crisis, for what other hospitals are dealing with. Right now, they’re in similar boats capacity-wise.

“I’m on constant conference calls,” Shields said. “Our experience is fairly common throughout, though you’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in St. Louis.”

“Assuming that there could be a surge, we have some capacity built into our system right now. We’ve dramatically limited clinic visits and have stopped elective surgeries.”

Shields said TMC has run more than 1,100 patient tests between its lab and a private vendor lab, with about 5 percent positive hits – all on symptomatic people.

“Which is low, and that’s what you want,” he said. “My hope is that what we’re doing now (with social distancing) is working, and we’re thankful for that.”

Shields freely acknowledges he’s not an epidemiologist but said his gut feeling is that those numbers could be a positive trend.

What makes social distancing important right now, he stressed, is the untold number of people who don’t yet know they’re infected or might hardly realize they ever were – presymptomatic and asymptomatic cases – and can still pass the coronavirus to a person who becomes a serious case.

As more rapid and accessible testing measures develop, yielding immediate results, such cases can be better identified. That, Shields said, that leads to more effective contact tracing and isolation and buys more time for hospital capacity and better treatments – truly flattening the curve. Eventually, that allows more places to slowly open back up.

“I think that is how we make it through this,” Shields said Monday, “but I think it’s going to be a journey getting there.”