Cooper Health Center: Mask order unlikely for county

Chris Bowie
A COVID-19 particle is pictured in this image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 cases continue to trend upward but the Cooper County Public Health Center isn’t pushing for an order requiring face masks in public in part because of the difficulty enforcing it.

“If we try to do or even the county commission for that matter, tries to do an order of temporary masks, there is no way to enforce it because it is a civil legal issue,” health Administrator Melanie Hutton said. “It’s not a criminal issue. There is no enforcement by law enforcement, so the only legal method of enforcement is filling an injunction against the person refusing the mask.”

The health center still encourages mask usage, though. Whatever you think of the coronavirus, the only tools for prevention are masks, hand washing and physical distancing, Hutton said.

“It will be at least until Christmas, if not later, before vaccines are available enough that are freely out there to immunize people,” Hutton said.

If numbers continue to significantly increase it could prevent schools from reopening or force them to close, she added.

Cooper County had 103 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday with 23 active cases and 74 recovered. The county tallied 32 new cases in the week ending Friday.

Infection numbers will not come down any time soon, Hutton said.

Implementing a mask order comes with costs just to get it in place, she said. A mask ordinance will cost the county money due to associated legal fees to have one approved by a judge, she said.

Counties have limited powers and a third-class county like Cooper County has fewer tools under state law than first- and second-class counties, she said.

Like much of the state, Cooper County saw a surge of cases in July. From 14 confirmed cases on June 30, there have been on average 89 new infections reported in July, an average of 2.9 per day.

More than half of the new cases during the month were reported in the Boonville Correctional Center and one in a nursing home, which means that in the county at large, there were 43 cases, or about 1.5 cases per day in July.

Congregate living is a factor in the case number increase, Hutton said. The term applies to college dorms, homeless shelters, nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

There were internal conversations whether congregate facilities should be included in county case numbers

“The bottom line is that they are counted as residents in the census in our county,” Hutton said. “They are also humans and they deserve to be counted, so we opted to list it under congregate living facilities. That caused part of that spike.”

Two other factors are the type of the coronavirus exposure — travel-related or community transmission. There were nine traveled-related cases as of Friday and 94 from community transmission.

Testing costs have increased since March. Private testing used to cost $53 but now is $109, Hutton said. The county is running low on personal protective equipment, as well. The health center is scheduling multiple tests via drive-thru, where the total tested on average is 15 per month since March.

The health center is seeking a portion of the coronavirus relief bill funding distributed by the Cooper County Commission. The center is waiting on approval, but has signed a memorandum of understanding with the commission.

“We were put on a waiting list for the CARES money,” Hutton said. “The Cooper County Commission did an MOU, where we had to apply for that money and hope that you get approved for repayment.”

Relief bill funding is used to reimburse COVID-19-related expenses, which could be applied to rapid-result tests the health center received Thursday. Relief bill funds also are needed if the health center were to conduct drive-thru testing events in municipalities.

“The test takes 10 minutes and the antibodies will tell you if it’s an acute infection or a past infection,” Hutton said. “It has 95-98% accuracy.”

Anyone the health center cannot test is being referred to University of Missouri drive-thru test site.