Missouri sets new record for COVID cases. Health director warns to avoid holiday gatherings

    BRIEF

    Missourians should not hold big family Thanksgiving or Christmas gatherings this year, but they will likely be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine by the spring, the state health director said Thursday.

    Randal Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, testifies on Tuesday, Nov. 10, before the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention (photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications).

    In an interview on KCMO radio, Randall Williams said the rapid spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, especially in outstate Missouri, is due in large part to family gatherings. He noted that the state is enduring record daily case counts while its neighbors in the Midwest are suffering from the same problem. 

    “We think that the virus is spreading in gathering, in clustering, especially in out-state Missouri, where people live far apart but they come together, especially around family and those events,” Williams told host Pete Mundo.

    William spoke just a short while before his agency, the Department of Health and Senior Services, reported a record 4,603 new infections, the third consecutive day of more than 4,000 new cases and the fifth time in the last six days.

    The new cases reported Thursday pushed the seven-day average of reported cases above 4,000 per day for the first time, to 4,113.6 per day. The seven-day average was 2,291 per day on Nov. 1 and 1,057 per day on Oct. 1.

    Thursday morning, a 12-member health advisory board in St. Louis city recommended that the city order all gatherings be restricted to 10 people or fewer. 

    This would apply to homes, but businesses can continue to operate at 50 percent capacity, according to the city’s Joint Board of Health and Hospitals which advises the city’s health director. The mandate to close bars at 11 p.m. will stay in place.

    “The hotspots are homes and apartment complexes,” said Dr. Fred Echols, the city’s acting health director. “The virus is being spread during small social gathering events.”

    Echols said the region needs to take a targeted approach at where the virus is spreading — among young adults 20 to 39.

    “In schools, we’ve had very minimal transmission because students adhere to the guidelines,” Echols said. “Ultimately, it’s the adults driving these case rates because they’re not acting responsibly.”

    The St. Louis region hospitals have seen a surge in new admissions this past week, with numbers that are double what was previously the region’s record number of new admissions from April. 

    The surge is mainly coming from cases in the rural areas of Missouri, Echols said.

    Dr. Will Ross, who chairs the board, said the city and region need to get out clear messaging immediately, or the city could be heading to another stay-at-home order.

    “At this stage of the game, we are not recommending another shelter-in-place (order) but that does not mean that things can’t change the next 48 hours. The community needs to know that.”

    The high number of cases around the state are also forcing more schools to move to virtual education, with 92 of 557 districts and charter schools in all-online education. Southern Boone County Schools in Ashland sent high school students home as cases spike in that district, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported. 

    And the University of Missouri Tigers football team will not play its scheduled home game Saturday against the University of Georgia because of active COVID-19 cases and players in quarantine, the Tribune reported. As of Wednesday, MU had 127 students and 43 faculty and staff on its Columbia campus with active COVID-19 cases, nearly double the number fighting the virus on Nov. 1.

    Hospitalizations are continuing to increase along with the case counts. The health agency dashboard showed 2,328 people were being treated as inpatients on Tuesday, almost 700 more than were being treated in hospitals on Nov. 1. 

    “We are concerned about our number of hospitalizations but we are stable,” Williams said. “We still have our ICU capacity but we are concerned about the trajectory we are on, if more people keep getting the disease, obviously that becomes even more concerning.”

    There were new COVID-19 infections reported in 115 of 117 local health jurisdictions, with the most rapid increase continuing to be seen in rural areas. Of the 20 reporting jurisdictions with the highest per capita rate for new cases this month, all but 3 have fewer than 50,000 residents, with the highest rates in Cole, Ste. Genevieve and Moniteau counties.

    “We think it is a reflection of the cold weather, people congregating more,” Williams said. “We are concerned that people are dropping their guard. We have been at this nine months – we understand that there’s fatigue. We need them to be more vigilant, not less vigilant, especially as we move into the holidays.”

    Williams noted that one of the employees in his department usually hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for more than 50 family members. That kind of celebration should be avoided, he said.

    “We just have to do things differently this year,” Williams said.

    When Mundo asked Williams about the timing of a vaccine, Williams said he expects the first inoculations will be delivered to health care providers by the end of the year and become generally available in April and May.

    “We think that by April or May there will be four vaccines available to the people of Missouri and that anybody in Missouri in the year 2021 who wants to get a vaccine will be able to get a vaccine,” Williams said.

    The winter will be difficult to endure but the vaccine will help restore a normal pattern to life, Williams said.

    “We really do think it is a lighted path to get us to a better place,” Williams said. “We really do.”