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Health, Science, Environment

Missouri Now A 'Red Zone' For The Coronavirus, But Officials Resist Statewide Orders

Server and bartender Mencia Haymon wipes counters down with disinfectant at Flannery's Pub in downtown St. Louis. Flannery's has spaced tables far apart. Servers and other workers wear masks to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Server and bartender Mencia Haymon wipes counters down with disinfectant at Flannery's Pub in downtown St. Louis to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The federal government has designated Missouri a "red zone," which indicates the disease is spreading quickly in the state.

The head of the Missouri Health Department stands by his decision not to recommend a statewide mandate for masks or social distancing, even as the federal government has designated the state a “red zone” for new coronavirus cases.

The federal government gives a red zone designation to states with positivity rates above 10%, or with more than 100 new weekly cases per every 100,000 people.

As of Aug. 6, there were 122 new weekly cases per every 100,000 people in Missouri. And during that same period, more than 11% of coronavirus tests have come back positive, according to data compiled by St. Louis Public Radio.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force recommends that counties with positivity rates above 10% enact more restrictions, such as closing down gyms and bars.

The designation is cause for concern, said Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. But statewide restrictions don’t make sense for Missouri, he said.

“The red is a warning that we take it very seriously,” Williams said. “What I tell people is: What does red mean? It means you stop, you use caution.”

However, “Missouri is a very diverse state … it doesn’t lend itself to that kind of one-size-fits-all strategy,” he said.

Williams said that most of the new cases are in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas and among people in their 20s and 30s. That means a statewide stay-at-home mandate such as the one Gov. Mike Parson ordered in April wouldn’t be as effective as what he calls a “clinical” strategy that supports local officials’ orders.

But there’s far more spread across the state than earlier in the spring, said Chris Prener, a sociologist at St. Louis University who has been tracking COVID-19 data.

In early summer, officials pointed to outbreaks in nursing homes, jails and agricultural facilities as the culprit behind the increase in cases.

“We really focused on St. Louis and a couple of these rural counties where there were meatpacking outbreaks and other institutional outbreaks,” he said.

But the virus is now spreading more freely among counties without links to those crowded institutions, he said.

“Certainly, when you compare it to the last time we had statewide orders, when Dr. Williams’ statement was true. It was very highly concentrated around St. Louis,” Prener said. “Now geographically, we have a much wider extent of cases reported than we did before.”

In the national task force’s report released July 26, officials named Joplin, Branson, Sedalia, Kennett and Hannibal as cities in the “red zone.” McDonald, Newton, Taney, Polk and Pettis counties were also among 13 counties listed as areas of high concern.

The report listed St. Louis and St. Louis, Jefferson and St. Charles counties as localities in the “yellow zone.”

Both St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said they are paying close attention to the federal report.

“Missouri as a state is trending in the wrong direction,” Page said. “The cases of COVID-19 are moving up in the south, people in Missouri tend to travel a lot, and we believe that’s associated with an increased rate of COVID in our community.”

There’s a chance Missouri could soon fall back into the yellow zone: The number of new coronavirus cases in Missouri has been declining. As of Aug. 6, 1,663 people tested positive in the past seven days. That’s 23% fewer than the week before.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

Clarification: An earlier version of this story misstated the position of Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, on masks to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Williams said he does not recommend a state mandate for masks or social distancing.

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