News Briefs

Missouri GOP Senators weighed risk before Branson retreat, Rowden says

By: - November 17, 2020 10:03 am

Amid speculation that a Republican state Senator and staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 contracted it at the GOP Senate retreat last week, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said members discussed the risk but felt the need to set an agenda for 2021 was too important to delay.

The infections in the Senate forced the upper chamber on Monday to postpone this week’s planned meetings for the special session called for appropriations and COVID-19 liability protection.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia

The tentative plan, Rowden said, is to return the week after Thanksgiving to pass the appropriations bill. Whether the liability protection legislation will be taken up at that time will depend on the availability of Senators, he said.

The rapid run-up in cases statewide is straining hospital resources – trustees of Boone Hospital Center in Columbia on Monday received a sobering report on the situation in that facility – and leading to new local restrictions, with Kansas City limiting gatherings to 10 or less.

In an interview Tuesday morning, Rowden, R-Columbia, said no one is sure the lawmaker or staff member caught the coronavirus while in Branson. The member has not been publicly identified.

“We had the conversation about continuing forward with our caucus,” Rowden said. “We talked about the census, redistricting, and talked about all those really, really important things. We recognized the risk involved in coming together.”

The meeting took place during what was, until this week, the worst period for new cases and hospitalizations since the pandemic first arrived in the state in March. When the caucus began last Tuesday, the seven-day average of reported cases in the state stood at 3,753 per day and when they adjourned on Thursday, it was up to 4,113.

With 5,690 new cases reported Tuesday, second only to Saturday’s tally of 6,346 new infections, the seven-day average of reported cases has grown to 4,589 per day.

The Department of Health and Senior Services reported 67 additional deaths on Tuesday, including 42 that were found in a regular weekly review of death certificates, matching them with COVID case reports.

There have been 248,886 total cases since March and 3,453 deaths in Missouri.

Hospitalizations, which stood at 1,632 inpatients with COVID-19 on Nov. 1, grew to 2,584 on Monday, according to data from the health department’s data. Boone Hospital, which is managed by BJC HealthCare under a lease with the hospital Board of Trustees, had 17 inpatients on Nov. 1 and 53 on Monday morning.

The high case count is straining resources, which are further stretched by staffing issues because 30 to 50 employees are in quarantine for exposure or in isolation with an active coronavirus infection on any given day, said Greg Steinhoff, a who is one of the hospital’s five trustees.

Nurses and other providers carry bruises on their faces from the heavy protective gear they must wear, Steinhoff said. About 70 percent of the patients are from outside Boone County, where no mask mandate is in place.

“These are tense times, there is no doubt about it,” Steinhoff said.

One part of the problem currently, trustees were told, is that a large number of people won’t get a coronavirus test unless they get very sick, he said. They don’t want to follow orders requiring them to go into quarantine or isolation for 10 to 14 days, he said.

Steinhoff echoed the call of the Missouri Hospital Association for Gov. Mike Parson to issue a statewide order requiring people to wear masks.

“It just really is a difficult situation that everyone should have empathy for,” Steinhoff said.

The rapid increase in cases led Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas on Monday to order bars and restaurants to start closing at 10 p.m., limit public and private gatherings to 10 people who remain 6 feet apart and require people to wear face masks indoors whenever they are not alone, regardless of the distance separating people.

“We are in the toughest moment since this virus came into our communities, and overcoming this crisis requires an aggressive and immediate response,” Lucas said in a news release. “State lines, county lines, and city lines are nothing more than street names. It takes leadership and all of us—our entire region—to slow the spread.”

Every section of the state is seeing a rapid increase in cases – there was at least one case reported in 116 of 117 local health jurisdictions Tuesday.

With members arriving in Branson from all over the state, Rowden said it is difficult to know where the lawmaker and staff member were infected.

Photos posted by Gov. Mike Parson showing many members around a table without masks were taken shortly after breakfast, Rowden said. In most settings, he said, many, but not all, of the GOP Senators were wearing masks.

There is no requirement that people who enter the Capitol Building wear masks and no requirement for lawmakers to wear masks while in session.

Social distancing is easier to maintain during the special session when fewer lobbyists and other visitors are around, Rowden said. And whether stricter rules are in place in January when the regular session begins is up for discussion, he said.

“I don’t know what things will look like on Jan. 6 when we go in,” Rowden said. “We will have a number of contingencies ready. When the time comes, we will know what to do.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.