Parson declares Missouri emergency, notes two new cases

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared on Friday a state of emergency in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus and announced that the state had two more presumptive positive cases, bringing the total to four.

One of the new cases is a St. Louis County resident in the 50s whose case is believed to be related to domestic travel, Parson said in a statement. Details on the other case have not yet been released.

At a news conference, Parson said he considered declaring the state of emergency “the next appropriate step to protect the public health” and stressed that the move was not being made because of concerns that the state’s health care system was overwhelmed or unprepared.

“The primary purpose of this emergency declaration is to provide greater flexibility in allocating our state resources, not because the local health providers feel they are overwhelmed,” Parson told reporters in his Capitol office.

Declaring a state of emergency gives Parson the ability to tap into about $7 million of state disaster funds, which he said could be used for coronavirus response efforts.

Parson also said he did not intend to close the state’s schools, as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker did on Friday. Parson said school districts should seek guidance from local health officials in deciding whether to close schools.

However, the University of Missouri System announced Friday that in-person classes had been suspended for the rest of the spring semester at the system’s flagship campus in Columbia and its three other campuses in St. Louis, Kansas City and Rolla. Campus housing, dining halls, libraries and broadband internet will remain available to students, the statement said.

Also on Friday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who is a physician, banned all events in the county attended by more than 250 people amid a flurry of closures of athletic events, parades and even church services.

Detection efforts also were intensifying. The Mercy health system announced that a drive-through coronavirus testing facility could open as soon as Saturday in Chesterfield. Mercy said it also planned to open more testing sites in Missouri and the three other states where it operates — Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, a Missouri health department spokeswoman said the agency was working to fix a glitch with a hotline the state set up to answer questions about the virus. Calls to the hotline from out-of-state numbers wouldn’t go through as of Friday afternoon.

Missouri’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was a St. Louis-area woman in her 20s who had been studying in Italy and tested positive for the coronavirus last week after returning home.

The state’s second case is a person in the early 20s who had recently traveled to Austria, Parson said Thursday. The patient was tested at a clinic in Springfield, is quarantined at home with mild symptoms and is expected to recover, Parson said.

Parson said Friday that the state was working out agreements to allow Washington University and the University of Missouri to conduct coronavirus tests and expand the state’s testing capacity.

The World Health Organization has labelled the coronavirus a pandemic, and President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the WHO, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Kansas City Public Schools decided to close on Friday, one day before the start of spring break. Most students in the district receive free and reduced-priced lunch. Ray Weikal, a KCPS spokesman, said the district had been “planning for services like food distribution, virtual learning and deep cleaning in case we cancel school after spring break,” The Kansas City Star reported.

“We know that our families depend on us for multiple services, and we commit to continuing to support our families in the event of future closures,” Weikal said.

Several universities in the state have moved to online classes.

Parson asked the Legislature to authorize $13 million in federal emergency funding to address the coronavirus.

Kansas City and St. Louis have banned all public events with more than 1,000 attendees. St. Patrick’s Day parades in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield have been canceled. Six Flags St. Louis announced that it has suspended operation until at least the end of March.

Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections announced Thursday that Missouri’s 20 state-run prisons will be closed to visitors, with the exception of attorneys, for the next 30 days. Parson said the Department of Mental Health and Missouri veterans’ homes also were restricting visitors.

St. Louis Circuit Court suspended all jury trials through April 13, and walk-in weddings at the county courthouse on Friday afternoons will be suspended on March 30 and April 3.

Entertainment venues in St. Louis and Kansas City also announced closings or cancellations for the next few weeks. The St. Louis Art Museum and Contemporary Art Museum will remain open but are canceling tours, special events and lectures starting Sunday through April 30.

Churches also were calling off services, including the Church of the Resurrection, which has the largest Methodist congregation in the U.S. with over 20,000 members. The megachurch’s main campus is in Leawood, Kansas, but it has campuses on the Missouri side of the line.

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