A vendor who promised delivery of 3.9 million KN95 masks to protect Missouri first responders and health care workers is refusing to return the $8.25 million paid to secure delivery after the masks proved defective.


That revelation came Friday from Sandy Karsten, director of the state Department of Public Safety.


The state signed a contract with the vendor for a total of $16.5 million and paid half of it in advance, Sandy Karsten, director of the state Department of Public Safety said Friday during the daily news briefing in Gov. Mike Parson’s office.


Shortly after the briefing, Parson had his first live news conference with reporters in several weeks. His daily briefings have been conducted on Facebook, with questions screened by spokeswoman Kelli Jones.


In his news conference, Parson promised the state will go after its money.


"We got cheated here in this state and we are going to go out there and try to get our money back and hold people accountable," Parson said.


The governor’s news conference came as figures released Friday showed there may be further evidence the pandemic may be cooling in the state.


The Department of Health and Senior Services reported 172 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, with 125 of the new cases in the state’s two largest metropolitan areas. The state now has confirmed 5,283 infections through testing. The state has recorded 165 deaths, up 13 from Wednesday.


Asked why he was willing to take questions in the cavernous capitol rotunda, Parson said it was time and the pandemic seems to be abating.


"It just has come to the point where I felt comfortable doing it now," he said.


On Thursday, Parson said the stay-at-home order, also set to expire on Friday, would be extended 10 days through May 3. Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia-Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, said it was a reasonable decision.


The decision on when and how to loosen the restrictions of the Boone County stay-at-home order will be made next week, Browning wrote in an email to the Tribune, near the time when the current order is set to expire on Friday.


There are a number of factors to consider to prevent the spread of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 disease, Browning wrote.


The factors include Columbia’s status as a regional hub for employment, retail markets and health care, Browning wrote.


"We are working on a plan that I will share with the (Columbia City Council) and (the Boone County Commission) next week," Browning wrote. "I will be seeking input from health care and others from the business community."


While Parson set May 3 as the day for relaxing the state restrictions, Kansas City and Jackson County on the west side of the state extended their orders to May 15. On the east side of the state, leaders in St. Louis and St. Louis County have extended the orders indefinitely, intending to evaluate the situation in mid-May.


Browning wrote that she’s not ready to say whether the local order will be extended longer than the state’s order.


Boone County has found 87 cases of COVID-19 infection since the first case in mid-March, according to data kept by the county health department. As of Friday, only seven of those cases remained active. The state Department of Health and Senior Services report shows 93 cases in the county. The state’s count has increased by 13 cases this week.


"I don’t want a knee-jerk response," she wrote. "I want to do the right thing to protect the health of our community while being mindful of the economic issues."


Missouri lawmakers will return to the capitol on April 27. The most important thing lawmakers can do is get the budget ready for the upcoming fiscal year, Parson told reporters.


"I don’t have any control of what they are going to do or what they are going to bring up, nor should I have control," he said.


On Thursday, Parson said he wanted to ramp up testing by the time the state stay-at-home order is lifted May 3.


"We are going to be able to do somewhere around 10,000 or better per day just in the near future," Parson said. "We want to double our capacity right now in the next week and I think that is doable to do on that."


Karsten first revealed that the state had rejected the defective masks on Wednesday.


During the briefing, as she discussed the masks, Karsten did not name the vendor but said it was only one of the three that sent the state masks that did not fit as promised – all made in China – that is refusing to provide a refund.


In all, she said, the state signed contracts with three vendors for 9.2 million masks with three vendors, totaling $34.1 million. The vendors had delivered 461,000 of the masks when the problems were discovered.


"We will do everything in our power to recoup the money which went towards (masks) that were not up to the standards and did not provide the protection our first responders and medical professionals deserve for the high-risk work they are performing," Karsten said.


To open the state, more testing will be needed. Parson on Thursday said the state is doing about 3,000 tests a day, but that pace has not been shown in the results this week. The state health department reported that the state health lab and private labs reported the results of 1,980 tests on Friday after 1,629 tests on Wednesday and 1,113 tests on Thursday.


Leaders are also concerned about the communities feeling the strongest impact from COVID-19. The highest death counts in Missouri are in the urban areas and the high percentage of deaths among black residents who have sickened and died from the coronavirus "shines a spotlight" on racial inequities in the St. Louis region and elsewhere, Democratic St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said.


Data from the state health, the Associated Press reported, shows that 34% of deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, have involved black people, 40% white people and the race was unknown for 23% of victims. Blacks make up about 11.5% of the Missouri population.


In St. Louis County, 54% of those who have died were black. About 24% of county residents are black.


"We’ve seen the virus hit extraordinarily hard in our African American communities, not just here locally but across the country," Page said during a news conference Friday. "We need to stop the inequities in the provision of health care in our underserved communities."


The state’s report on Friday was the fifth time this week the state has reported fewer than 250 new infections.


As of Friday, there was least one confirmed COVID-19 infection in 94 of the 117 local health department jurisdictions that report to the state.


Deaths have been reported in 27 counties.



State data shows the major growth in cases continues to be in the major metropolitan areas. There are 2,088 cases in St. Louis County, an increase of 62 from Wednesday, and 711 in the city of St. Louis, an increase of five. There are 417 cases in St. Charles County, up 12 from Thursday.


On the other side of the state, Kansas City added 15 cases to bring its total confirmed cases to 401, and Jackson County outside the city had 267, an increase of seven from Wednesday.


The count in Greene County increased by two to 83.


The county with the most cases outside the state’s four largest metropolitan areas is Saline County, which recorded two new cases on Friday, bringing its total to 51.


In central Missouri, the number of cases identified in Moniteau County increased three to 15. The case count increase by one in Callaway County increased to 21 and by one in Cole County to 42 . Counts were stable in Randolph County with eight, Cooper County with four and Howard County with two.


Audrain County has not reported any infected people.


The grim reality of the pandemic is playing out in many ways.


St. Louis County is nearing completion of a temporary morgue, in case the coronavirus causes more deaths than the existing morgue can handle.


County spokesman Benjamin Granda said the "Dignified Transfer Center" is being built in a 29,000-square-foot building near the Missouri River. It could hold up to 1,300 bodies, though no projections show the county reaching anywhere near that number.


The permanent morgue is a one-story building in Berkeley, with a capacity of 20 bodies. State law requires the county medical examiner to investigate the cause of some deaths, including those from a disease that is thought to be hazardous or contagious.


While the total number of new cases in Missouri seems to be declining, nationally the number of cases is averaging about 30,000 a day this week. The U.S. now has more than 683,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, up almost 33,000 since late Thursday afternoon.


The contagion is blamed for 32,232 deaths in the United States.


Worldwide, the virus is known to have infected more than 2.2 million people and is blamed for 148,654 deaths.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


rkeller@columbiatribune.com


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