The White House Coronavirus Task Force became the latest group to recommend Missouri issue a statewide mask mandate last month after noting "high levels" of transmission in close to half of the counties in the state.
A task force report dated Aug. 16, which the News-Leader obtained with a public records request, said Missouri was again in the "red zone" for the number of new cases per capita it recorded the week prior.
In that week, Missouri recorded an average of 1,135 cases per day, a rate that has not changed much since. On Tuesday, the Health and Human Services Department 1,058 new COVID-19 cases, with at least one new case in 82 of the state’s 117 local health jurisdictions.
Last week, the state averaged 1,133 cases per day and during August, no local health department had fewer than four new cases. Missouri has now tallied 85,755 coronavirus infections, with 1,538 deaths. The state reported eight additional deaths on Tuesday.
Boone County, where a mask ordinance is in effect for the city of Columbia, is in the midst of its worst time of the pandemic. The county added 95 cases on Tuesday, just over the seven-day average of 92 and the eighth consecutive day of 70 or more cases.
The University of Missouri reported 51 new cases among students Tuesday, bringing the total on campus to 600, with 424 active cases. There have been 29 cases among faculty and staff since Aug. 16.
And MU Health Care, citing rapidly increasing demand for tests, will re-open its drive-through testing site near the Hearnes Center. The site closed in July when MU Health Care moved all testing to the Mizzou North campus on Business Loop 70.
MU Health Care has reported almost 5,000 tests since Aug. 22 and 1,057 positive results.
The new White House report is different from three previous reports that recommended the state urging residents to adhere to local restrictions, the Aug. 16 report’s recommended the following: "Establish mask requirement statewide. Work with local communities to ensure high usage rates. Identify mechanisms to assess compliance with local regulations including working with community organizations."
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, whose office receives weekly reports from the task force, apparently disregarded the recommendation, which went unmentioned in public appearances. No state mask mandate has been issued since.
A spokeswoman for Parson did not respond to requests for comment by the News-Leader’s deadline Tuesday afternoon.
By mid-August, Parson, a Republican, had already declined multiple requests to issue a state masking requirement despite indications they slowed caseload growth in other states. In press conferences and political events, he framed the idea as an infringement on personal freedoms and an unnecessary measure outside of big cities.
Parson did much the same Aug. 18 when Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, visited him in Jefferson City.
During the visit, two days after the report recommending a statewide mandate, Birx talked about how the Republican governor of Texas tried to walk the urban-rural divide by mandating masks in counties with more than 20 active cases. In a press conference afterward, Parson called it a "great model."
But when a reporter asked if he would follow suit, Parson said Missouri’s "high areas" already had mask mandates, even though many counties with "red zone" labels did not.
He also said the biggest takeaway from talking to Birx was a comment on personal responsibility.
"You can have the guidelines all day long," he said, "but at the end of the day, someone's got to take those guidelines and say 'Are we willing to do that? Are we willing to give up gatherings? Are we willing to do social distancing?’"
Notably, Birx did not directly contradict Parson when a reporter asked her opinion of a Missouri mandate.
She allowed that "every public health official in the country will tell you it is easier" with a mask requirement, but also said that if every retailer in an area requires masks like she said she saw in Branson — which is under a local mandate — and other smaller communities, "it sends the message to the community that masks are important."
The White House task force recommendation is not the first to be rejected by the Parson administration.
The Missouri State Medical Association, which represents physicians, and the Missouri Nurses Association sent Parson a letter calling for a mask mandate to "stop the upward curve of cases" July 10.
Springfield Mayor Ken McClure wrote a letter on behalf of himself and the City Council Aug. 13 urging the same as a way to avoid another shutdown.
"While individual cities have mandated wearing masks in public," McClure wrote, "a significant impact will not be achieved unless all persons in Missouri wear masks in public until such a time as we are able to bring this disease under control."
Parson has largely portrayed the virus as already under control here, noting the state can test more people and offer more personal protective equipment than it could at the beginning of the pandemic. He also typically notes that the state’s hospitals have not been overwhelmed.
Top state officials like Dr. Randall Williams, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, have said Missouri’s cases and deaths per resident compare favorably with most other states so far in the crisis.
But cases have been trending up here in the past couple of months.
Since July 1, Missouri’s infection rate has ranked 17th-highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia and 3rd-highest in the 12-state Midwest region, second only to Iowa and North Dakota.
Missouri has had the 28th-highest death rate during the same period.
University of Missouri cases
MU is cracking down on COVID-19 violations as its case numbers increase among students and doing so both with gentle nudging and possible punishment.
Officials are taking action against students and student organizations, MU Chancellor Mun Choi wrote in an email to the campus.
"To date, we have 270 students going through our conduct process for alleged violations of COVID policies and guidelines," Choi, who is also UM System president, wrote Monday. "Ten student organizations have been temporarily suspended while an investigation progresses. Students will not be punished for providing valuable information to contact tracers."
And in an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Choi said he’s trying to push the students to adhere to the rules.
"I have an electric moped," Choi said. "I go around and just encourage people to socially distance. But if I see that they’re not, I just ask them, Look, you’re doing it not only for yourselves, but for everyone else."
But he acknowledged the university has little sway over students when they’re not on campus.
An MU virologist on Monday told the Columbia Board of Education he’s not concerned about MU students spreading COVID-19 when they’re on campus or in classrooms. The school board voted to start the school year online because of the rate of spread in town, including among students.
"I’m not terribly worried about spreading the virus on campus," said Marc Johnson. "It’s when they’re off campus that there’s a lot of spread."
There wouldn’t be a high likelihood of spreading the disease in a classroom where everyone has face coverings and is social distancing, he said.
Johnson is one of the researchers at MU testing wastewater for COVID-19. Questioned by a school board member, he said it probably wouldn’t work for K-12 schools.
"If they all pooped when they were at school, that would work," Johnson said.
Missouri has paid a consulting firm more than $500,000 in emergency federal funding for pandemic-related costs, despite Parson saying in early May that an independent foundation was paying the firm.
State payroll records show the McChrystal Group has received $522,000 in federal CARES Act funding from the state, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The Virginia-based company was founded by retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
In early May, Parson said the Missouri Foundation for Health would pay up to $600,000 to the firm. He did not mention that the state would take over the payments on May 31, using the emergency federal aid.
Under a no-bid contract with the state, the McChrystal Group will be eligible to continue being paid nearly $250,000 a month for its work, Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said.
Missouri has spent over $1.5 billion of the more than $2 billion it has received as part of the federal aid to respond to the pandemic. Much of the money has gone to counties but it has also been used for such things as meals and lodging for emergency workers, hand sanitizers and masks.
Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune and the Associated Press contributed to this report.