Lewis Chastain, an undergraduate research assistant, processes wastewater samples prior to analysis for evidence of COVID-19. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
Missouri’s two largest counties will continue their efforts to overturn a court ruling that severely limits the powers of local health departments at the same time health officials warn the omicron variant will bring thousands of new COVID-19 cases.
Missouri reported almost 10,000 new coronavirus infections Monday, making December the second-worst month of the pandemic this year. Only January had more cases. The Monday report was an accumulation of four days of test results because the Department of Health and Senior Services did not report over Christmas weekend.
Daily average cases are at levels not seen since January, before vaccines became widely available.
The state health department, in a news release, reported the omicron variant was found in samples from 32 wastewater facilities last week, up from two just two weeks ago.
“I am expecting it to be worse in the next few weeks than it has ever been during the pandemic in terms of cases per day,” Marc Johnson, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the University of Missouri, told the Independent.
Johnson’s lab analyzes more than 100 samples from small and large sewer systems around the state each week.
The forecast comes as many counties have ceased all work to trace or quarantine coronavirus cases as a result of Circuit Judge Daniel Green’s Nov. 22 ruling that state health department rules granting local agencies powers for disease-control measures were unconstitutional.
Jackson and St. Louis counties are working together on the appeal, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said in a news conference Monday. He accused Attorney General Eric Schmitt of using the ruling to bully local health departments and pander for votes in the upcoming U.S. Senate primary.
“The confusion has already led to some county public health departments abandoning their response to rising COVID cases out of fear that the wrath of the state will descend upon them,” Page said. “The attorney general chose to not step up and appeal the Cole County case, ignoring his sworn duty to protect all the residents. Instead he is playing to an anti-vax crowd that he believes will help get him into a higher office.”
The decision became final Wednesday after he ruled against requests from St. Louis and Jackson counties, as well as several others, to intervene.
The appeal will seek to reverse Green’s decision against intervention. It will also seek to overturn his decision in the case and argue that he overstepped his authority to add issues to the case that were not raised by the plaintiffs, according to the notice of appeal.St. Louis County Notice of Appeal
Since the ruling, Schmitt has sent cease and desist letters to school districts and health departments, warned of future litigation if they fail to comply immediately and set up an inbox for parents to send complaints about districts continuing mitigation measures.
On Dec. 17, his office reported receiving 7,500 complaints and issuing 52 cease-and-desist letters to school districts.
Schmitt’s office hit back at Page in a statement to the Independent.
“This is a frivolous and wasteful appeal brought by COVID tyrants who won’t accept or abide by the court’s decisions,” the office statement read. “We will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of Missourians to make personal health decisions for their own families.”
The omicron variant was first confirmed in the state in a lab that analyzed a test from a patient, then it became apparent in wastewater samples from St. Joseph and Kansas City. In the two weeks since it was found in sewage in those communities, it has spread to 30 others.
Omicron is the first variant to spread faster than the delta variant, which is blamed for hundreds of thousands of infections and more than 4,700 deaths since it reached the state in May.
“The existence of the omicron variant is becoming much more prevalent each week, making the actions of COVID-19 individual testing, vaccination and other mitigation measures more important as we already face the threat of the delta variant and an increase in flu cases,” Donald Kauerauf, Department of Health and Senior Services director, said in the release.
The department reported 9,979 new cases Monday, the first data released since Thursday except for 17 cases reported on Friday. The daily average of reported cases stood at 3,274 per day, which is about the rate in mid-January.
There have been 79,340 coronavirus infections reported in Missouri so far this month. All but nine of the state’s 118 local health jurisdictions have higher infection rates this month than the full month of November.
The state’s COVID-19 dashboard, which reports averages with a three-day delay, shows 3,057 cases per day, the highest since rapid antigen-test cases were added to the report in March.
With New Year’s parties approaching, Kauerauf warned Missourians to be careful.
“Gatherings are continuing during this holiday season, and I highly encourage testing before and after these events and any travels to help limit any unintended spread of the virus,” said Kauerauf. “If you’re not feeling well, stay home and don’t risk getting your loved ones sick. It is important for individuals to plan ahead when identifying a location and advance timing needed to get tested, as there is a growing demand for these services.”
Full results of the wastewater analysis will be online Thursday, showing where it has been found and where it is pushing aside the delta variant. Much of it is along interstate highway corridors, Johnson noted.
“It is the first variant that is gaining ground against delta,” he said. “It is replicating faster than delta.”
At his news conference, Page said all he could do is encourage people to get vaccinated, wear masks and sanitize often. He has asked the St. Louis County Council to impose a mask order for the county but it has not received a vote.
“We’ve talked about this and at this point, the council chair is not ready to move forward on a mask mandate,” Page said. “And I don’t know if that will change.”
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