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As COVID cases tick up, Missouri pins its hopes on a vaccine’s arrival

By: - December 4, 2020 9:25 am

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson during a press conference from the Capitol on Dec. 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Missouri Governor’s Office)

After a slight Thanksgiving lull, Missouri’s COVID cases are once again rising, as the state pins its hopes on additional doses of a vaccine that will be coming later this month.

The state already anticipates it will receive enough doses of the Pfizer vaccine to treat 51,000 people, with another 64,000 Pfizer doses and 105,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine to arrive around Dec. 21, Randall Williams, the director of the state health department, said during a press conference Thursday.

“So thanks to this new allotment, we will start vaccinating and finish vaccinating, we think, by mid- January all our long term care facility and staff,” Williams said, “and think we’re on track to vaccinate all our 300,000 health care workers by the end of January.”

Long-term care facility residents and staff and healthcare workers will be the state’s top priority to receive a vaccine, with high-risk individuals, first responders and essential workers next in line. While the initial doses are on their way, it will likely be months until the average Missouri resident is able to receive one. 

“We are optimistic that a vaccine will provide much needed relief from COVID-19. But it will still be some time before a vaccine is widely available to the public,” Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday. “Until that time comes, the best weapon we have against COVID-19 is still prevention.”

Meanwhile, cases continue to rise, with the state adding 4,053 new COVID cases Friday — the first day over 4,000 cases has been reported since Nov. 26. The state also reported 20 new deaths, bringing the total to 4,122 since March.

A Nov. 29 White House Coronavirus Task Force report for Missouri urged for stricter measures as other states have done — warning that medical care will be compromised in the face of a post-Thanksgiving surge. The task force’s weekly reports to governors are not made public and was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.

“The depth of viral spread across Missouri remains significant and without public health orders in place compelling Missourians to act differently, the spread will remain unyielding with significant impact on the healthcare system,” the report read.

Hospitalizations have risen across the country, with the number of COVID patients in U.S. hospitals surpassing 100,000 for the first time Wednesday, according to COVID Tracking Project.

After hovering near record levels, the number of inpatients in Missouri hospitals dipped slightly to 2,581, according to the state’s preliminary data for Thursday. As of Tuesday, the most recent day data was available, 659 COVID patients were in intensive care units — with only 19 percent of ICU beds available.

On Wednesday, Parson announced the state would be hiring the Texas-based healthcare performance improvement company Vizient, which will work to bring up to 760 additional nurses, respiratory therapists and certified nurse assistants for the next 12 weeks.

Parson added Thursday that so far 12 hospitals across the state have agreed to participate, including some from the state’s largest health systems like St. Luke’s Health System, BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and Cox Health. The exact costs will be finalized once it is known how many healthcare workers will be brought on. The state will be competing for skilled staff with hospitals across the country.

All of Missouri’s counties are experiencing high to moderate levels of community transmission, according to the task force’s report. The report urged for residents’ compliance with public health orders, including wearing masks, and suggested increased restrictions like reducing indoor dining capacity to less than 25 percent and limiting bar hours.

The report recommended that active testing be done in K-12 schools where cases are increasing, masks be worn in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, and extracurricular activities be paused.

This weekend, the CDC will be arriving in the Springfield and St. Louis areas as part of a study to better understand the impact mask wearing and mitigation strategies have on the virus’ spread within schools, Parson announced Thursday.

“The staff that deploy to Missouri will join the 586 CDC staff deployed across the country helping state, local, tribal and territorial health departments respond to COVID-19,” a CDC spokeswoman wrote in an email Thursday.

Participating schools are still being identified in the counties of St. Charles, St. Louis, and Greene and participation will be voluntary. The Institute for Public Health at Washington University and St. Louis University will also be working with the Department of Health and Senior Services and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to complete the study.

When a case is identified in a participating school, students who were identified as a close contact but who can continue attending classes under the state’s revised guidance if masks were worn properly will be tested. In addition, students who will be sent home to quarantine for 10 days will also be tested, Williams said.

Close contacts will be monitored for symptoms and saliva tests developed by Washington University will be offered throughout the quarantine period. Data will be gathered and collected until schools start winter break, and the entire review process is expected to be completed within three months. 

“The purpose of this project is to understand the impact of our mitigation strategies in school transmission which can then help to inform our quarantine procedures,” Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for DHSS, wrote in an email Monday.

At the start of November, more than twice as many school districts were holding all classes in-person compared to those conducting classes remotely. By the end of the month, the situation had flipped.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covers education, health care and the legislature. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She most recently covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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