As Missourians seek COVID tests, politicians seek to lay blame for long lines and shortages

Cases, positivity rate and hospitalizations all at record levels as omicron variant hits metro areas hardest

By: and - January 7, 2022 5:16 pm
COVID-19 Testing

A swab is administered for COVID-19 testing at a drive-through Callaway County testing site on Nov. 17, 2020.(photo courtesy of Missouri Governor’s Office)

Missourians are scrambling to find coronavirus tests amid surging cases of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant, and politicians are scrambling to find someone to blame for the shortage.

The state is rationing the tests it is buying for residents. No one will be able to order a free at-home test from the state Department of Health and Senior Services vendor until Wednesday, and after that only a limited supply will be available each day.

And for more than a week, University of Missouri Health Care in Columbia has limited testing to people who have symptoms to conserve testing supplies.

To combat the shortage, on Thursday, St. Louis announced two partnerships to provide 1,000 to 2,000 additional tests each day

Also on Thursday, Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, sent Gov. Mike Parson a letter pleading with him to ask President Joe Biden for federal help to set up a testing site in St. Louis.

“The federal government is prepared to immediately deploy support at the request of governors, and over the last two weeks have stood up free COVID-19 testing sites in several states, including Texas, New Jersey, Maine, Delaware, and Nevada, among others,” Bush wrote. “Missouri must not waste any more time in securing these lifesaving resources.”

In an interview Friday with The Independent, Bush said the testing site won’t cost Missouri any money but said she wasn’t holding out hopes for a positive response. Parson’s decision to let an emergency declaration supporting staffing needs for health care facilities to lapse indicates his view, she said.

“You know, COVID-19 hasn’t been canceled. He cannot cancel COVID-19,” Bush said. “He can try as hard as he can but it will be here and it will stay here unless he takes appropriate action to take care of all of our communities.”

As temperatures dipped into the teens this week, St. Louis residents stood in long lines outside waiting to get tested. Clinics in both St. Louis County and St. Louis city announced that they have limited tests available and have even run out for periods of time.

Parson’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Bush’s letter. But in an interview this week with WDAF-TV, Parson said he has no plans to open a mass testing site and denied there was any shortage of tests except at some retail locations.

“At some point, we have to get out of the business of COVID-19, and we have to realize that we have to move forward in the private sector to do this,” Parson told the television station.

For Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the problem is Biden’s administration. In a Senate floor speech this week, he said Congress has allocated $80 billion for testing over the past year and there should be no shortage of tests now.

The Biden administration has made vaccination a priority while neglecting testing and supplies, Blunt said.

“For a full year, the administration has focused almost exclusively on one thing, and testing and treatments have not had the attention they should have had or now that they must have,” Blunt said. “That failure’s come at a steep cost. Today, Americans can’t find over-the-counter tests, and the nation lacks a comprehensive, reliable testing infrastructure.”

The political bickering comes against a backdrop of the highest case numbers, hospitalizations and positive test results since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March 2020.

On Friday, the state health department reported the sixth consecutive day of record case numbers and the the third consecutive day with more than 12,000 additional infections. The string of record days was interrupted by a pause for the New Year’s holiday, with no reports for three days.

The health department has reported 73,499 cases this week, including a report Monday that had data that would have been reported Dec. 31. That is more cases than in all but five of 22 months since the pandemic hit the state.

The surging cases pushed the St. Louis County Council to reinstate a mask mandate for indoor spaces and Kansas City has reinstated a mask mandate for schools. The St. Louis Art Museum will close until Feb. 1 because of the omicron surge, as will the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

And at the University of Missouri in Columbia, there are more students with active COVID-19 infections than at any time since September 2020. The school posted a report Friday showing 169 students and 58 faculty and staff with active cases.

Classes are not in session and many of those students are at home but the university is preparing for their return, spokesman Christian Basi wrote in an email.

“We’re reviewing our (quarantine) space to make sure we have enough for those students who live on campus,” Basi wrote. “For those who live off-campus, they will, as we did before, be expected to isolate in their off-campus residence if they test positive.”

The university will have two booster vaccination clinics for students as the semester begins Jan. 18, he wrote.

Identifying new cases will be harder if it is difficult to get tested. The demand is shown in the state’s weekly data, with tests surging by two-thirds. State health department data shows that during October and most of November, the state received reports on 80,000 to 95,000 PCR, or lab-analyzed, tests and 50,000 to 65,000 antigen, or rapid result, tests each week.

In the last week of December, the state received reports on 154,088 PCR tests and 88,983 antigen tests.

Along with high numbers, the positivity rate has soared. On Friday, the seven-day average positive rate on PCR tests was 31.1 percent, and on antigen tests it was 16.2 percent. Both are the highest rates seen in the course of the pandemic.

The highly transmissible omicron variant is overtaking the delta variant, blamed for more than 300,000 cases and almost 5,000 deaths since it arrived in the state in May. Wastewater monitoring done in collaboration between the state health department, the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Missouri shows three locations where omicron is dominant, 50 locations around the state where the two variants were present, and 11 where delta remained the only variant found.

Only one location, in northwest Missouri, showed evidence of a declining viral load.

The samples were collected the week after Christmas.

Marc Johnson, the professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at MU who analyzes the samples, said he expected omicron to spread through the state and displace the delta variant. 

“We weren’t sure how fast, but it has an advantage and a virus that has the advantage wins,” Johnson said.

Several samples are showing the highest viral loads of the pandemic, he said.

Using the data from wastewater, Johnson has several times estimated future case rates and said Friday he’s not sure where the peak will be. Cases numbers are more than three times where they were during the first week of December.

If the ability to report new cases is limited by a shortage of tests, he said, his analysis will not be affected.

“That is the thing, if it gets to a point where the cases exceed our testing threshold, we will still see it,” Johnson said.

The omicron surge has hit the state’s major metropolitan areas the hardest. The reports delivered this week by the state health department show a little over 1 percent of all Missourians have tested positive. In the seven Missouri counties of the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, the rate is almost 1.8 percent and in the 10 Missouri counties of the Kansas City MSA, it is 1.3 percent.

That is why the state needs to act and get more tests in St. Louis, Bush said. 

Missouri can’t blame the Biden administration or private providers for failing to meet the demand, she said. Only Parson can request a federal testing site, she said.

“Our county executive cannot make that ask, our mayor cannot make that ask, state reps alone cannot make that ask,” Bush said. “Our governor has to make the ask.”

This story has been updated since it was initially published.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.