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White House COVID-19 group: Missouri still in 'red zone,' masking needed where cases are in schools

Austin Huguelet Springfield News-Leader
Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, talks to the media at the Missouri Capitol.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force said Missouri continued to add new cases at an undesirable rate in the lead-up to Labor Day as major recommendations remained unheeded.

In its latest report dated Sept. 6 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, the task force said Missouri remained in the “red zone” for new cases with 150 per 100,000 residents added the previous week, the seventh-highest rate in the country. It was also in the “yellow zone” for positivity, with 9.7 percent of tests coming back positive for COVID-19, the ninth-highest rate in the country.

The task force also reported that 67 percent of Missouri counties had “moderate or high” levels of community transmission. Thirty-eight counties had what’s considered “high” levels of community transmission, including Greene, Christian and Boone counties as well as rural counties in the northwest and southeastern parts of the state.

All four numbers represented increases over the previous week’s statistics.

The data in the week since those figures were compiled show little improvement. For the week ending Saturday, Missouri added 145.5 cases per 100,000 residents and is among the five highest states for new infections since Sept. 1. The positive rate on tests for COVID-19 over the past seven days was 12 percent on Saturday, the Department of Health and Senior Services reported.

Missouri has had 101,134 infections since the pandemic arrived in the state in March. There were three additional deaths reported Saturday, bringing the total to 1,704.

As usual, the task force recommended the state take a number of different actions, but little seemed to change.

Another call to close bars didn’t appear to be heeded anywhere, though some cities have imposed capacity limits and Columbia and St. Louis have required them to close earlier than usual.

In Springfield, where bars are only subject to a half-capacity requirement, public health director Clay Goddard said he’s not sure a shutdown would really help.

“We’ve been trying to do investigations on bars and we just haven’t been able to tie a lot of cases to them,” Goddard said in an interview.

Goddard also pointed out that even if he could tie cases to the bars, shutting them down might just create new hot spots at restaurants with liquor service and college house parties.

Another recommendation for the state to “require masks in metro areas and counties with COVID-19 cases among students or teachers in K-12 schools” was also ignored.

It was difficult to know how many metro areas and counties the recommendation would apply to because relevant data is scattered among the state’s 114 local public health agencies.

The state health department is working on pooling that data at the state level, but it’s not clear when that will be done.

Nevertheless, the lack of requirements is clear just in Greene County: Cases have been reported in the Springfield and Republic school districts, but only Springfield has a mask ordinance.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson also brushed off a previous recommendation to establish a general statewide mask mandate last month, saying high-risk areas already had mask mandates even though many counties with “red zone” labels did not.

The task force’s recommendations for colleges seemed more popular, though.

Missouri State University Safety Director David Hall said in an email the school is already doing most of what the task force wants.

The only caveat was on a recommendation that universities have a plan in place for “rapid testing,” which Hall said MSU would do but can’t because the manufacturer of the equipment hasn’t produced enough yet.

The University of Missouri-Columbia is also employing several of the recommendations, including those about recruiting students to “expand public health messaging” and monitoring the virus through the wastewater in dorms, though it is not randomly testing students like MSU and other schools.

MU spokeswoman Liz McCune said that's because surveillance testing wouldn't catch every case and the school's strategy is focusing more on getting people to wear masks and social distance to stop the spread of the virus before testing comes into the picture.

She allowed, however, that the university’s executive team meets daily on the issue and is “prepared to pivot if necessary.”

The latest recommendations came as outbreaks continue to test schools here and across the country. A New York Times survey found more than 88,000 total cases across roughly 1,190 colleges as of Thursday, including more than 3,000 cases at 32 Missouri schools.

MU had reported more than 1,200 cases among students and staff as of Friday; MSU had reported roughly 870 as of Thursday.