Missouri's health chief says the state is ready for schools to open
With some schools just days away from the new semester, Missouri’s top health and education officials briefed lawmakers Tuesday on the state of the COVID-19 outbreak and the plan to protect facilities.
Dr. Randall Williams, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, kicked things off with a slideshow overview reassuring a House committee that Missouri’s response so far looks pretty good compared with other states.
He said Missouri has the 14th fewest cases per person and the 20th fewest deaths per person, and praised Gov. Mike Parson, his boss, for pushing so hard to ramp up testing.
Now, Williams said, the state is a “national model for 'boxing in' outbreaks at nursing homes, where Missouri has seenfewer deaths per resident in federally licensed facilities than the large majority of other states.
“We’re now at a capacity where we can do 100,000 tests a week through 26 labs and that's enabled us to go into every nursing home in Missouri when there’s one patient and one staff member and test everybody,” he said.
In his next breath, Williams warned that the state is also in the middle of a “resurgence in positive cases,” led at least in part by young adults who are brushing off safety precautions even when they have symptoms and spreading their germs far and wide.
And while some officials, including Parson, a Republican, have attributed rising caseloads to increased testing, Williams said there are also more sick people to test, noting that the percentage of people testing positive has nearly tripled since June.
“The virus is spreading community-wide, in Missouri, as we speak, primarily among young people,” he said. “So that's a very real phenomenon.”
But Williams also noted that the resurgence has yet to overwhelm hospitals or force spikes in Missouri’s death rate.
And while Williams acknowledged that reopening schools will lead to more cases, state Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said their goal is to get as many kids back in the classroom as possible this fall.
Williams said that push is partially driven by concerns about kids falling behind at critical times.
“We think schools are really important,” he said. "We know that children learn in certain windows of time. You can't say 'You don't need to learn to read now, you'll pick that up when you're 9.' It doesn't work that way."
He and Vandeven also noted they’ve provided plenty of guidance to schools across the state to help them keep students and staff safe.
Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, noted that guidance does not require districts to mandate masks to help the spread of the disease, as many public health officials recommend.
But Vandeven said that’s typically not the state’s role, especially in education.
"This is Missouri and we've typically always prided ourselves on being a local control state,” she said, “and I would have to say that we see our role as providing the best guidance that we can and then trusting that our local authorities know the best for their communities to make the best decision.”
She allowed that going back to school may not be for everyone, and said she supports students and parents who want to go virtual for a semester, as many are in Springfield.
“We're not saying it's right for everyone, but the goal is to get as many buildings open as possible as safely as possible so that parents at least have a choice,” she said.
In other comments, Williams, the health chief, also acknowledged struggles with getting money to local health departments to pay people to trace the path of infections so potential infections can be tested and quarantined.
The state sent hundreds of millions of federal relief dollars to local governments in May to help pay for such needs, but Williams said when his agency surveyed its local counterparts three weeks ago, most of them said nothing had trickled down.
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department was among those departments still waiting in July.
Williams also acknowledged challenges with some labs taking too long to return test results. In-state labs are getting results back in 48 hours, he said, but national labs like those run by Quest are taking an average of 14-15 days to process, well past when they’re truly helpful for public health.
“Before you get a test, I tell people to ask, ‘What is your usual time to get this test back?’ Williams said. “And if they say 10 days, you need to get the test somewhere else.”