St. Louis-area hospitals have seen a sudden and "alarming" spike in hospitalizations for the coronavirus, and the leader of the region's pandemic task force is imploring residents to wear face coverings and practice social distancing.

O'FALLON — St. Louis-area hospitals have seen a sudden and "alarming" spike in hospitalizations for the coronavirus, and the leader of the region's pandemic task force is imploring residents to wear face coverings and practice social distancing.

For several weeks, the number of new daily admissions for COVID-19 hovered around 40. But Dr. Alex Garza of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Wednesday reported 71 new admissions. The task force is a collaboration between BJC HealthCare, SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke's Hospital to track and analyse data related to the coronavirus.

It was the largest one-day total since the pandemic began, topping the 69 admissions on April 8. The admission numbers reflect a two-day lag.

Garza also cited other concerning data. Total hospitalizations for confirmed cases reached 309, the highest level since May 22. The number of patients in intensive care units rose by 20 to 86, and the number of patients on ventilators also rose, to 45. Garza said another 114 people are hospitalized with suspected cases of the illness, including 17 in ICU and seven on ventilators.

"Our data for today, just to be blunt, is fairly alarming," Garza said.

The St. Louis region has been hit harder by the pandemic than anywhere else in Missouri. Combined, St. Louis city and St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties make up 32,377 of Missouri's 78,062 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 1,038 of the state's 1,449 confirmed deaths.

Garza said the best ways to keep the virus in check are to wear masks, avoid crowds and keep six feet away from others. He warned that health care overall will suffer if hospitalizations remain so high.

"Eventually it will catch up to the health care systems and we'll be unable to provide care for other types of patients and elective surgeries, things like that. We worked really hard to get those numbers down so we just can't let up now," Garza said.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and Garza both cited concerning spikes in the number of younger people testing positive for the virus, including those ages 15 to 19. Younger people testing positive generally show little or no symptoms but can pass on the illnesses to others, Garza said.

Adding to concerns about the virus: Flu season is fast approaching. Garza said flu cases typically begin to appear in October or November. "That means it's more important than any previous year to get vaccinated against the flu," he said.

The number of confirmed cases continues to rise in Boone County, the site of the University of Missouri-Columbia. The Columbia Missourian reported that the number in the county has topped 2,000, including 500 new cases over the past two weeks.

The newspaper reported that testing sites are being inundated and contact tracing has been slowed. Scott Clardy, the deputy county health director, said contact tracing efforts fell behind due to more than 200 positive test results last weekend.