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St. Louis health director considers mask requirement as coronavirus spreads again

Irene Felsch, 7, of Kirkwood, looks ahead as resident physician Riti Chokshi administers the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. The federal government recently approved vaccinations for children from 5 to 12 years-of-age.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Irene Felsch, 7, of Kirkwood, gets a COVID-19 vaccine shot from resident physician Riti Chokshi at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in November 2021. Coronavirus cases are again rising in St. Louis.

St. Louis is seeing rising numbers of coronavirus cases, and the city’s health director is again considering recommending public health measures, including mask requirements, to protect people from the virus.

The number of new reported coronavirus cases is as high as it was during last summer’s delta variant surge, Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis said during a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday. An average of 212 cases per 100,000 people has been reported in the past week. However, the number of cases is difficult to tally as fewer people are getting tested.

“We’ve been in the high transmission level for some time when we talk about cases and positivity rate,” Hlatshwayo Davis said. “We’re definitely in a surge right now.”

The Board of Aldermen would have to enact requirements based on the health department’s recommendations.

The number of regional hospitalizations also is increasing, Hlatshwayo Davis said. Over the past week, hospitals in the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force admitted an average of 39 new patients with COVID-19 each day, the most since early spring.

Since earlier this year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the local health department have taken new case numbers, positivity rates and hospitalizations into account to designate counties as having low, medium or high transmission of the virus to determine the area’s risk. 

As of Wednesday night, the city had moved into the “high” category, Hlatshwayo Davis said.

When the community level is high, the CDC advises governments to consider implementing more health screenings, putting limits on some gatherings and recommending that people wear masks indoors. The agency also recommends people over 65 or those with chronic health problems consider staying away from high-risk indoor activities like nightclubs or concerts.

Hlatshwayo Davis said she may soon recommend St. Louis officials take action to keep the virus from spreading.

“Anywhere else, that’s a slam dunk for a mask mandate,” she said.

Hlatshwayo Davis said she knows that putting a mask mandate in place would place burdens on workers in health departments and school districts, which have been sued for enforcing such measures.

“I’m a health director in a city in Missouri. I do not have the might and weight and the empowerment of our national and state and federal organizations,” she said. “If I have a mask mandate, half the city hates me; if I don't have a mask mandate, half the city hates me. That’s OK, I’m still going to do my job.”

During Wednesday's town hall, the health director also announced plans to form a bureau within the health department to help residents with mental health disorders and addiction, which Hlatshwayo Davis said is the largest budget request of her tenure. The department plans to hire 31 employees to work at the bureau starting July 1.

Hlathswayo Davis also announced the department has used money from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund grassroots organizations working to reduce the city’s rates of gun violence.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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