Health, Science, Environment | St. Louis Public Radio

Health, Science, Environment

Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region is the last provider of abortion services in Missouri. It could lose its license this week.
File photo | David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 6:10 p.m., May 29 with comment from Planned Parenthood officials

The last clinic providing abortions in Missouri can remain open, a state commissioner ruled Friday.

Missouri Administrative Hearing Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi said in a 97-page decision that Gov. Mike Parson's administration was wrong to not renew the license of a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis in spring 2019. The clinic has remained open while the commission considered its appeal.

St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fred Echols addresses media on Feb. 28, 2020. Echols says although there are no coronavirus cases in Missouri, residents should be prepared to prevent the virus.
File photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

These conversations will be on “St. Louis on the Air” over the noon hour on Monday. This story will be updated after the show. You can listen live.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has announced a plan to distribute $64 million in federal aid intended to bolster the city’s response to the coronavirus. The plan, which Krewson said she’ll submit to the Board of Aldermen for revisions and approval, includes $2.5 million for contact tracing: to hire 25 people and invest in technology.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske will talk with Dr. Fred Echols, acting director of the St. Louis Department of Health, and Franda Thomas, the department’s communicable disease bureau chief. They’ll discuss the city’s efforts to track the coronavirus.

Electric scooters started appearing on St. Louis streets in summer 2018. (May 28, 2020)
Shula Neuman | St. Louis Public Radio

Ride-sharing scooters have returned to St. Louis streets during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Companies operating the motorized transportation devices in the city are resuming operations after pulling the vehicles off the streets in the early days of the outbreak. 

Dr. Katherine Austman, a fellow with the Addiction Recovery Centers of America, conducts a follow-up appointment with a patient living at an encampment for homeless people on May 28, 2020.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Emergency workers in St. Louis responded to an increased number of drug overdoses this spring, according to city health data. 

St. Louis EMS responders used the overdose-reversing medication Narcan 246 times in March and April, nearly twice as often as during the same period last year. 

The increased stress and isolation during the coronavirus pandemic has made some people more likely to use drugs, St. Louis Fire Department Chief Dennis Jenkerson said.

Dr. Sameer Vohra
SIU School of Medicine

This interview will be on “St. Louis on the Air” at noon Tuesday. This story will be updated after the show. You can listen live.

For Dr. Sameer Vohra and his colleagues, a focus on improving the lives of people in southern and central Illinois has long been at the heart of their work. But now, in the age of COVID-19, the urgency of their mission is more obvious than ever.

Vohra leads SIU School of Medicine's Department of Population Science and Policy as its founding chair, and the coronavirus pandemic has magnified many of the challenges that the region’s small cities and rural communities already faced.

As Vohra and crew continue their research, interventions and policy recommendations aimed at addressing existing health disparities and building stronger communities throughout the state, the impacts of the current crisis loom large.

St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fred Echols addresses media on Feb. 28, 2020. Echols says although there are no coronavirus cases in Missouri, residents should be prepared to prevent the virus.
File photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 10:15 p.m. May 27 with Mayor Lyda Krewson's announcement that Dr. Fred Echols will be acting health director 

Members of the St. Louis Board of Alderman are questioning Dr. Fred Echols’ qualifications to be the city's health director.

After learning that Echols no longer has a license to practice medicine, the board’s Rules Committee scheduled a meeting this week to investigate his credentials. 

As a result, Echols has had to defend his expertise, and city officials and medical professionals have defended his record. But late Wednesday, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced that she and Echols agree that it's in the city's best interests to amend his appointment to acting director.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced the first positive test of COVID-19 in the state on March 7.

Newly updated data, however, show that there may have been active cases more than a month earlier.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services COVID-19 dashboard, which was updated on Saturday, now shows the first COVID-19 case on February 2 and 9 additional cases on subsequent days that month.

Anne Austin working with ancient tattoos
Anne Austin

As a scholar who works with human remains, Anne Austin had long looked closely at bones. Her training is in osteology and Egyptology, and for many years she worked to expand the world’s knowledge about the health, medicine and disease of past civilizations. 

But in 2016, her focus suddenly turned from bones to ancient skin — and body art.

“As I was doing my research, I accidentally came across this really heavily tattooed mummy — minimum 30 tattoos, on her arms, her shoulders and her back,” Austin recalled. “That discovery literally rewrote what we understand about tattooing in ancient Egypt. And since then, I’ve been able to go back and find more tattoos at the site [where] I work.”

May 27, 2020 Gail Brown Delores Brown
Provided by Gail Brown

It’s not just parents of young children trying to balance caregiving with other responsibilities during this pandemic. People whose loved ones suffer from dementia are also finding themselves under increased stress. Adult day centers are closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Many therapists and other support staff no longer offer in-person visits. And people with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments may not realize why masks are necessary, much less remember the explanation from hour to hour.

Gail Brown is the primary caregiver for her mother, Delores, who has Alzheimer’s. She knows those challenges well.   

Struggling with stress, isolation and economic upheaval
Kristen Uroda for NPR

The current era of social isolation and job loss is challenging for most everyone. But for people with a substance use disorder or who are in recovery, the COVID-19 crisis can present even more difficulties.

Daily life in the age of coronavirus is riddled with stressors, and stress can lead to an increase in substance use — as well as the possibility of relapse for those working to stay sober. And while virtual versions of critical support systems are still possible in many cases, face-to-face accountability and social opportunities are indeed diminished.

But along with those concerns, there’s also reason for hope. Jenny Armbruster of the St. Louis-based organization NCADA sees what she’s described as some “unintended positive side effects” of all of this, too.

Bob Behnken will be one of the first astronauts to travel into space on a commercially-built U.S. spacecraft, as part of a joint venture between NASA and aerospace company SpaceX.

NASA is set to launch its first space mission from American soil in nearly a decade — with an astronaut from St. Louis County aboard.

St. Ann native Bob Behnken is part of a two-person crew heading to the International Space Station on the Crew Dragon spacecraft, a joint venture between NASA and the commercial aerospace company SpaceX. 

The historic mission, scheduled to launch Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is also the first time a commercially built U.S. rocket and spacecraft will carry humans to the space station.

It has been around two months of quarantine for many of us. The urge to get out and enjoy the summer is real. But what's safe? We asked a panel of infectious disease and public health experts to rate the risk of summer activities, from backyard gatherings to a day at the pool to sharing a vacation house with another household.

Greg Shank, 20, Harry Shank, 94 and Gary Shank, 65, pose for a photo at their home in St. Louis County on May 22, 2020.
Greg Shank

A few weeks ago, St. Louis County resident Gary Shank decided to move his 94-year-old father out of Delmar Gardens nursing home in Chesterfield. 

Delmar Gardens notified Shank, who lives near Chesterfield, that three residents there had tested positive. Shank didn’t want his father to become infected, so he brought him home on May 6.

More than a third of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the St. Louis County have reported to state health officials that multiple residents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Like others who have moved loved ones from nursing homes, Shank wanted to distance his father from the risk.

Red Cross workers tend to St. Louis pandemic victims in 1918. (Added May 21, 2020)
Missouri Historical Society Collections

As health experts and elected officials plan to further reopen the region’s economy, there is concern over a possible second wave of the coronavirus later this year.

The additional waves of the influenza pandemic more than 100 years ago proved to be more deadly than the first round of the outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there were three waves of the 1918 pandemic, with the second phase being responsible for most of the 675,000 outbreak deaths in the U.S.

A voter fills out a ballot at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis on March 10, 2020.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri voters will get a chance to expand Medicaid.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced Friday that he approved the petition to put Medicaid expansion on the November ballot.

Backers submitted more than 340,000 petition signatures, well over the number needed to qualify for a proposed constitutional amendment.

The amendment would expand Medicaid to people making 138% of the federal poverty level, which is a little less than $18,000 a year.

On Thursday, Missouri’s state health department reported 30 new COVID-19 deaths, the highest daily toll so far during the pandemic.

The total number of deaths reached 661, more than double the total of 329 at the end of April. Other indicators, meanwhile, suggest the coronavirus may have a greater impact than state numbers indicate.

The COVID-19 data released by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services includes numbers of people who’ve died of the disease as reported by doctors, medical examiners, hospitals and local health agencies.

Doctors can complete a COVID-19 antibody test with a traditional blood draw or a finger stick.
LCpl Austin Schlosser | US Army

People who wonder if they’ve been sick with the coronavirus can now be tested for COVID-19 antibodies at urgent care clinics throughout the St. Louis region. The results could show if someone was sick with the illness and recovered.

Antibodies are proteins the immune system makes to fight sickness. Having them means a person has been exposed to the virus.

But doctors caution they still know little about what the results of COVID-19 antibodies tests reveal. 

Respiratory therapist Melissa Delavara cares for COVID-19 patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Researchers at Washington University are launching a clinical trial of 30,000 health care workers to test if the drug chloroquine prevents COVID-19 infection.
Matt Miller | Washington University

Washington University researchers are launching an international study to test whether the drug chloroquine can prevent coronavirus infection.

Chloroquine and the closely related hydroxychloroquine have been used for decades for the prevention and treatment of malaria. But researchers are now examining whether the former might also be useful in the global fight against COVID-19. The collaborative team spanning four continents will enroll tens of thousands of health care workers in the clinical trial.

Scott Allred, a beekeeper in Wildwood, tends to his hives. Allred has been capturing wayward bee swarms in the St. Louis area since 2012.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Bob Altman didn’t notice the bee swarm at first.

“My neighbor came over and knocked on my door and said, ‘Bob, there’s something in your backyard,’” Altman said.

The Florissant resident watched as thousands of bees zoomed in circles behind his home “like a tornado,” before landing on an old clothesline pole in a humming ball.

Nassim Benchaabane | St. Louis Public Radio

Doctors in the St. Louis area are monitoring at least four cases of a rare childhood illness linked to COVID-19.

The emergence of the sickness known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome means children may not be as safe from the coronavirus as public health experts initially thought, doctors said.

“I think we were operating under the assumption that kids got a free pass, to some degree, and that was reassuring,” said Dr. Bradley Ornstein, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. “A little bit of that has been lost at this point in my mind.”

Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Cindy Lefton has worked as a registered nurse for 37 years. For her, the job requires attention to not only patients’ physical needs, but to their loved ones, helping them know they're in good hands.

Lefton did just that for Dana Nichols Scott when Scott’s younger brother was in the emergency room in 2001. Scott said that even though she knew her brother wouldn’t make it, Lefton helped her family feel at peace.

“Cindy was so awesome. She was caring and made me and my family feel so good at the time,” Scott said. “Even when I think of that time now, during troubled times, I feel at peace because there are people like Cindy around to help people.”

Two county health departments are trialing a new “tech-based” approach to COVID-19 contact tracing. Meanwhile, Governor J.B. Pritzker Monday defended rules that lay out penalties for businesses disobeying statewide shutdown orders.

Pritzker’s office announced both St. Clair and Lake County’s health departments will use a “state-of-the-art” software platform that is designed to gather data from infected persons and track the virus in real-time. Another 95 counties will join them over the next few weeks.

Dikes on the Mississippi River
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Environmental organizations in Missouri and Illinois have filed a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that dikes and other structures the agency has built in the Mississippi River have caused major damage to the environment. 

The federal agency has been working on a project that uses dikes and other barriers to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel that allows barges to transport grain and other goods on the Mississippi River. But environmentalists cite research that has shown that the structures can constrict the river, causing water to flow higher and faster during floods.

Carla Harris takes medication for Diabetes and heart palpitations. Like Many African Americans, she's concerned that her pre-existing condition makes her more susceptible to COVID-19., May 18, 2020
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Carla Harris sent her 15-year-old daughter to stay with a family member in St. Louis County several weeks ago. Harris is a certified nurse assistant and patient care technician who works in a St. Louis-area hospital. Her husband works in a nursing facility. 

Like many African Americans with pre-existing health conditions, they worry that they're vulnerable to the coronavirus, which has disproportionately hit black communities in the region. She lives with diabetes and takes medication for heart palpitations, and he has bronchitis. Harris said they know quite a few people who have lost a loved one to COVID-19.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page prepares to answer questions from reporters on April 30, 2019.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County officially opened for business today. But after nearly eight weeks of coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said it won’t be business as usual, much less party time. 

Reduced capacities, masks and barriers between customers and employees will be “our new normal,” Page previously explained. And for now, other St. Louis County businesses remain closed entirely, including gyms, swimming pools and bars that do not serve food. 

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Page explained that he believed the county was ready to reopen thanks to a 14-day dip in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

May 15, 2020 Laura Keller
Provided by Laura Keller

As executive director of the St. Louis Fire Department Foundation, Laura Keller is tasked with helping the department in any way she can. Lately, that’s meant helping purchase much-needed protective equipment for firefighters, who remain on the front lines even as the coronavirus spreads across the U.S. 

And Keller recently did that work under challenging circumstances: She herself was diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the same coronavirus that firefighters need protection from. While she’s now recovered from the disease, her illness shows the reality that firefighters now face daily: The coronavirus might be lurking at every stop they make.

A hospital employee works in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Intensive Care Unit in April. The hospital has resumed scheduling elective procedures.
Erin Jones | Barnes-Jewish Hospital

Two months after canceling most procedures because of the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals in St. Louis are now scheduling elective surgeries for nonemergency patients. 

New hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients have begun to level off in the region, and hospital officials say they’re ready to provide nonurgent surgeries, screenings and other procedures. But they plan to put safety precautions in place to protect employees and patients and watch for a potential increase in coronavirus cases.

“We have a significant number of patients we’ve delayed for a couple of weeks,” said Dr. Sameer Siddiqui, a surgeon at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital. “If we delay much longer, their situation is going to become much more urgent.” 

All that's required to participate is some sunshine, a camera and some brief virtual training.
Nicole Miller-Struttmann

Reading the headlines of 2020 can be pretty overwhelming. Between a pandemic, an economic crisis and even a much-hyped sighting of “murder hornets” in the Pacific Northwest, it can all leave one feeling pretty helpless about attempting to be a force for good in the world.

But on an ecological level, at least one such attempt can take place right in one’s own backyard — and Nicole Miller-Struttmann and bee experts everywhere will be grateful for it. Miller-Struttmann and fellow biologists at Webster University and St. Louis University are launching Shutterbee, a collaborative project powered by citizen scientists.

It requires only some sunshine, a camera and completion of a single virtual training session on May 20, 21 or 23. Shutterbee’s organizers are intent on reaching a real scientific goal: to discover how landscape features and land management decisions affect bee diversity and behavior.

Nancy Morrow-Howell is the director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging and a professor at Washington University.
Washington University

Even the quickest scan of statistics related to the coronavirus pandemic makes it painfully obvious the disease has hit some communities and segments of the population much harder than others. And to an expert on aging and social policy such as Washington University’s Nancy Morrow-Howell, those troubling realities come as no surprise.

But as the crisis shines fresh light on longstanding disparities on a multitude of fronts, along with the everyday impacts of systemic racism and ageism, Morrow-Howell also has some hope for real improvement — particularly when it comes to a deeper understanding of older adults as the diverse individuals that they are.

There are no national regulations or guidelines for determining which patients receive treatment when hospitals are overwhelmed in a pandemic. Some hospitals have scrambled to develop or revise their triage policies during the pandemic.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio

As the number of patients sickened by the coronavirus surged worldwide, hospital officials considered a gut-wrenching question: If doctors can’t care for everyone, which patients should get lifesaving treatment?

Triage policies are intended for worst-case scenarios, when resources are scarce and a hospital is too overwhelmed to save every patient. 

But rationing treatment presents a serious moral dilemma, says St. Louis University bioethicist Jason Eberl. He spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan about the ethical challenges of deciding who to treat — and planning for the next pandemic.