As rising cases fill hospitals, Parson urges precautions around holiday gatherings
Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday urged Missourians to change the way they celebrate the holidays this year with a rise in COVID-19 cases pushing hospitals closer to crisis. At the same time, Parson made clear he won't force any changes.
“With the holidays coming, it’s up to us — not government, but me and you — to change the way we do Thanksgivings,” he said in a press conference. “And I would recommend that. My own family’s Thanksgiving will not look the same as it has in years past.”
"My in-laws are in their 80s, they both have underlying health conditions, and my family won’t expose them to the possibility of COVID-19 when we don’t have to.”
State health director Randall Williams said Missourians could keep themselves safe by self-quarantining before traveling to a gathering, meeting outside where possible and wearing masks.
Williams also said that people should avoid gatherings altogether the moment they detect coronavirus-related symptoms, which include fever, coughing and loss of taste and smell.
“You’ve got to be willing to change your plans if you become symptomatic,” he said. “You have to be much more thoughtful about Thanksgiving than you've ever been.”
Experts have long feared holiday gatherings amid the pandemic because of their potential to bring multiple generations of people — including especially vulnerable seniors — together in a setting where close contact is the norm.
The gatherings are also coming at a difficult time, with Missouri and the Midwest taking the brunt of a national surge right now. Vaccines are coming, but they won’t be available to most people until next year.
“At this very moment in time, your risk of getting COVID-19 is the highest it's been,” Williams said.
However, along with the warnings, Parson made clear he will not mandate precautions.
"Your private residence is your private residence," Parson said. "Government has no business going to the front doors of your homes to decide how many people are there and how many are not."
Parson also rejected the latest plea for a statewide mask mandate from hospital leaders, who said last week they need help to keep from being overwhelmed amid the surge.
Research suggests mandates helped slow new caseload growth elsewhere, and more than 30 other states have some form of one in place, including newcomer red states Iowa and North Dakota.
A break in cases would be welcome here: On average, Missouri is reporting more than twice as many new cases and hospitalizations each day than it was two months ago.
But while Parson acknowledged hospital capacity “is becoming a problem,” he said he still thinks local governments should make the calls on mandates and that ultimately, people will have to take personal responsibility to flatten the curve.
That means mask mandates and other restrictions will likely remain mostly confined to larger cities like Springfield and their close suburbs.
Parson said his administration is looking at other ways to help hospitals, including sending the National Guard to bolster staffing.
He said his administration would also release a public health "warning" offering guidance for local governments later in the day.
"We're going to encourage them to take some sort of action," he said.
"But at the end of the day," he added, "as many people out there as would like to say it's government's responsibility, it's not."
The warning ultimately reflected that sentiment. It offered reminders of standard precautions for the general public and laid out "expectations" for each county, but did not impose any legal requirements.
The general advice for the public was for people to:
• stay 6 feet away from others in public;
• wear a mask at all times when social distancing is not possible;
• limit close contacts with other people to less than 15 minutes;
• wash their hands multiple times a day;
• self-isolate when they feel sick or have symptoms; and
• limit travel outside Missouri as much as possible.
People in nearly 90 counties were also advised to keep their social groups to 10 or fewer people. People in the rest of the counties were advised to keep their social groups to 25 or fewer.
Parson also reiterated his intention to avoid a vaccine mandate.
“We’re not going to punish people because they don’t want to get a vaccine," he said.
Democrats found all of it lacking.
"The governor’s attempts to get this crisis under control over the last nine months haven’t worked," House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said in a statement. "He must acknowledge that reality and immediately take stronger actions, such as issuing a statewide mask mandate, to minimize the damage this disease is inflicting on our state.”
Missouri has recorded just over 288,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,600 deaths from the virus since the beginning of the crisis, according to data gathered from the state and its local health departments by the New York Times.
The state has had the 20th-most cases per resident and 28th-most deaths per resident among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to data from the state and the The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project.