Missouri health chief balks at mandates despite 'red zone'

Missouri health chief balks at mandates despite 'red zone'

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri’s top health official has insisted that a statewide mandate for masks and social distancing doesn’t make sense, even though the federal government has designated the state a “red zone” for new coronavirus cases.

The official, Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, agreed that the federal designation was cause for concern.

Dr. Randall Williams
“The red is a warning that we take very seriously,” Williams told KCUR-FM radio for a report published Monday. “What I tell people is: What does red mean? It means you stop, you use caution.”

The federal government gives a red zone designation to states with positivity rates above 10 percent, or with more than 100 new weekly cases per every 100,000 people.

“Missouri is a very diverse state … it doesn’t lend itself to that kind of one-size-fits-all strategy,” Williams said.

As of Aug. 6, there were 122 new weekly cases per every 100,000 people in Missouri. And during that same period, more than 11 percent of coronavirus tests have come back positive, according to data compiled by St. Louis Public Radio.

Williams argued that most of the new cases were in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, and that a statewide stay-at-home mandate like the one the governor ordered in April wouldn’t be as effective as what he calls a “clinical” strategy that supports local officials.

But Chris Prener, a sociologist at St. Louis University who has been tracking the COVID-19 data, countered that the virus had now spread far more across the state than in the spring.

Health officials blamed outbreaks in nursing homes, jails and meatpacking plants for the rise in reported cases earlier this summer, but the virus is now spreading more freely among counties without links to those crowded facilities.

The federal task force’s July 26 report named Joplin, Branson, Sedalia, Kennett and Hannibal as “red zone” cities, while McDonald, Newton, Taney, Polk and Pettis counties were among 13 counties also listed as areas of high concern.

“Missouri as a state is trending in the wrong direction,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said. “The cases of COVID-19 are moving up in the south, people in Missouri tend to travel a lot, and we believe that’s associated with an increased rate of COVID in our community.”

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