The White House Coronavirus Task Force issued another round of recommendations for Missouri this past week in an effort to curb a stubbornly high infection rate, but its advice again went largely unheeded.
In the report dated Aug. 30 obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, the task force noted that once again the state was in the "red zone" for number of new cases per capita, the 10th-highest figure in the country.
Since the date of that report, Missouri has continued to show an accelerating pandemic. For the first six days of September, the state is in the top five states for cases per capita.
To remedy that, the task force recommended among other things that "(b)ars must be closed" and "(m)ask mandates across the state must be in place to decrease transmission."
That language on mask mandates differed from an Aug. 16 recommendation that read "Establish mask requirement statewide," but it wasn’t clear how different, if at all, the recommendation was.
A White House spokesman ignored a question about the meaning of the new recommendation Thursday, instead reciting a generic answer about how task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx is in "regular contact with state and local officials to provide data and guidance."
Regardless, little appeared to change with mask mandates or bar closings heading into Labor Day weekend.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson stayed consistent in his opposition to a statewide mask mandate, casting off the more direct Aug. 16 recommendation Tuesday as one of many "guidelines" and making clear that encouraging people to wear masks is as far as he’s willing to go.
The state ended August with an average of 1,108 cases per day over 31 days, and only one day in September has been below that figure. That was true again Sunday, when the Department of Health and Senior Services reported another 1,242 cases from 92 local health jurisdictions.
For the third consecutive day, Boone County added the second-most new cases in the state. The state count showed 3,473 total cases in Boone County, 114 more than in the state’s report from Saturday and 75 more than the 3,398 the Columbia-Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department showed in its Sunday report.
The 67 cases added Sunday in the Boone County report is the smallest since Aug. 24, when 31 cases were reported.
Statewide, COVID-19 inpatient hospitalizations continued at a high rate Sunday, with 966 people in a regular or ICU bed. In Columbia, University of Missouri Hospital, which is the only one that updates its numbers daily, showed a new high of 25 inpatients mid-afternoon Sunday.
The state health department reported 17 additional deaths on Sunday, including 15 that had been identified as incorrectly classified as non-COVID-19 deaths from June through August.
The state has reported 1,658 deaths, or about 1.8% of those who have become infected. Nationally, the death rate has been about 3%.
While Parson says he is open to local officials imposing mask mandates, there were few if any new takers this past week, keeping the requirements largely confined to a handful of the state’s largest cities and counties, including Springfield.
St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield have also imposed some restrictions on bars, which have been focal points of viral spread in some areas.
Columbia’s top public health official began requiring bars to cut patrons off at 9 p.m. and close by 10 p.m. last week, and on Friday, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson extended an order requiring them to operate at half-capacity and close by 11 p.m. indefinitely.
Kansas City and Springfield are also requiring bars to operate at half capacity, and all four cities require masks in public.
But none apparently felt the need to close bars entirely, as the task force recommended.
Stephanie Browning, Columbia’s public health chief, had said before the report came out that she almost closed bars but ultimately decided against it.
"What we’re seeing in our violations is they’re coming late at night," she said Aug. 29.
"We’re trying to keep things open and trying to keep it at a manageable hour where people can go home."
And in Springfield, where bars don’t have an early cut-off, health department director Clay Goddard said only around 1 percent of exposures have been linked to bars so far.
"At this point, I don’t know that (closing bars) is warranted," he said, adding that he would continue to watch the data and go to the City Council if something changes.
The task force also said "university towns" need "a comprehensive plan that scales immediately for testing all returning students with routine surveillance testing to immediately identify new cases and outbreaks."
That recommendation comes as state universities are reporting hundreds of new cases among students and staff each week.
Outbreaks are testing many universities, including the University of Missouri-Columbia, which did not test all students and staff at the beginning of the year as other universities did. It had recorded 551 active cases and more than 800 total by Friday.
Missouri State University, which also did not test all returning students, had reported 524 cases as of last Sunday and at least 150 more as of Thursday, according to an online dashboard.
They’re not alone. Even the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has drawn praise for a program administering more than 10,000 tests per week, has struggled with rising case numbers that led it to announce a two-week lockdown Wednesday.