Birx to Missouri: Wear masks, avoid large gatherings to slow COVID-19
JEFFERSON CITY — A top doctor from the White House’s coronavirus task force came through the Capitol on Tuesday urging Missourians to take precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Following a meeting with Gov. Mike Parson, Dr. Deborah Birx told reporters that every Missourian needs to taking precautions right now, a big ask in a state with uneven interest despite rising case numbers.
“We need every American and everybody in Missouri to be wearing a mask and socially distancing,” she said. “We’re asking every citizen to not have large gatherings in their backyard until we have an effective vaccine, to really curtail those gatherings when you bring people together.”
Birx added that rural areas and urban areas have been “equally impacted” by the virus and that no matter where people live, “everyone needs to really make sure that they’re not infecting another.”
Of the 10 counties with the highest overall infection rates in Missouri, seven have a population of less than 60,000 people and four have a population below 25,000. For cases reported since Aug. 1, the 10 counties with the highest infection rates all have a population less than 70,000 and three have a population of fewer than 6,000 people.
"I know we want to believe our families and our neighbors couldn't have COVID," she continued. "I can tell you across the United States that they do.”
Birx also made note that the state is now fighting the outbreak as schools and colleges welcome thousands of students back into the classroom, and she suggested heeding her advice will be key to keeping them open.
“We can have the schools open, we can have the universities and colleges open, we can have the sports games,” she said, “but we all have to do our part to get these cases down no matter where you live in the U.S.”
Birx did not recommend any new government action to make that happen, however.
Parson, a Republican, has previously drawn criticism from Democrats and public health experts for refusing to mandate masks statewide despite indications they slowed caseload growth in other states.
But Birx, who has taken criticism for her role in the country’s lackluster COVID-19 response, did not join in.
Instead, she echoed some of Parson's usual rhetoric on the need for different approaches depending on the size of a community, saying "messages" must be "adjusted" to fit each unique situation.
She said she told Parson how the governor of Texas walked that line by mandating masks in every county with more than 20 cases, but she did not directly answer a question about whether Missouri should follow Texas’s lead.
She also said that in Alabama and Mississippi, other conservative states with mandates, nearly every county had “active community spread," which she said applied to fewer than half of Missouri’s 114 counties.
Parson also acknowledged talk of the Texas mandate but said “high-risk” areas here already have mask mandates.
He did not say how he defined a high-risk area.
Despite becoming a hot spot in July, counties in far southwest Missouri have never gone beyond encouraging masks and the city of Joplin voted Monday night to rescind its mandate and capacity restrictions on businesses despite a resurgence in active cases this month.
Parson later said his biggest takeaway from his meeting with Birx was about the need for people to take personal responsibility on slowing the spread.
“You can have the guidelines all day long,” he said, “but at the end of the day, someone's got to take those guidelines and say 'Are we willing to do that? Are we willing to give up gatherings? Are we willing to do social distancing?’
Dr. Randall Williams, the state’s top public health official, added that Birx warned of how excessive regulation could lead to "COVID fatigue.”
“People become very fatigued if you're too draconian in your requirements,” he said. “And then later when you actually need it, when your cases go up, they're worn out.”
He also noted that Missouri has done better than more than half of other states in COVID-19 cases per resident so far.
In the past month, however, the state has seen its infection rate climb into the top half of states and the top spot in the Midwest region, surpassing states like Michigan and Illinois that were hit hard earlier in the crisis.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him email@example.com.