Missouri lawmakers appear to be readying backup plans should the novel coronavirus hit here.
Rep. Justin Hill, who chairs a joint House-Senate committee on disaster preparedness, said Tuesday that if a case was discovered here, the capitol would likely have to shut down to be cleaned.
“If we get a case here, there's a good chance that, yes, we're going to have to quarantine the people infected and clean,” Hill said.
In a building the size of the capitol, he said, that could take weeks: meaning lawmakers would need to meet somewhere else.
Hill told his committee Tuesday he’d already spoken with key legislative staff about that and there are plans in place.
Lawmakers would have to meet elsewhere in Jefferson City per the state constitution, he said, and could vote on paper if necessary.
He added that if the situation gets bad enough, lawmakers could simply focus on passing a budget — the one thing the constitution requires them to do — and postpone consideration of other issues.
“If it’s the budget we’ve been working on this year, that’s great,” he said. “But if we can’t meet and finish the budget we’ve been working on, we’ll probably revert to last year’s budget, take it up and pass it.”
Lawmakersare already taking some precautions, including asking people to stay away from the capitol unless they're "directly participating in legislative business" and closing the House floor to the public.
Hill’s comments followed the latest testimony from state health officials on the virus Tuesday afternoon.
State health director Randall Williams mostly reiterated what he’s already said publicly: that Missouri is well-prepared to handle the virus.
He also said that the state is doing tests for the virus every day and noted that so far, all but one of the tests he knew of had come back negative.
The outlier is a 20-year-old woman in St. Louis County who recently returned from hard-hit Italy.
Officials also took questions from lawmakers on the state’s access to critical supplies like tests for the virus that help public health experts assess spread.
Bill Whitmar, the lab director at the State Public Health Laboratory, told lawmakers the state has more than 1,000 tests for the virus available at this point and that more are on the way.
He later added that the state could test up to 100 patients per day and is currently testing 10-12 per day.
Williams added that the state has enough tests for its purposes at this point and both men noted tests are now also available commercially.
Jackie Gatz, vice president of safety and preparedness for the Missouri Hospital Association, also testified on her members’ readiness for the virus and offered some good news.
She told lawmakers she’s confident Missouri hospitals will be able to handle the estimated 4 percent of critical coronavirus cases requiring specialized treatment.
Then they got a very different take from former Sen. Rob Schaaf, a physician from St. Joseph.
He cited estimates from Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch that20 to 60 percent of the world’s adult population will eventually be infectedand told lawmakers to buckle up.
“We are not prepared,” he said. “You are hearing from the bureaucrats that we are prepared, and we are not prepared. We’re not prepared at all.”
He said the state’s hospital system will be swamped and the state would need to use its rainy-day fund, so legislators should start thinking about that, too.
“You should probably drop everything you’re doing right now and start only working on coronavirus problems,” he said. “Seriously.”
He further recommended lawmakers draft emergency rules to meet virtually and consider how to help other people working or living in confined spaces.
Schaaf, who said he works for the prison health care provider Corizon, asked lawmakers to consider furloughing nonviolent inmates so they don’t get trapped in prison with a deadly disease, for example.