Missouri saw the worst day yet of the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday when the state reported almost 1,000 new infections and logged another 10 deaths from the disease.
With at least one new case in 78 local health jurisdictions and rising case counts among the young — 93 of the 180 cases reported in Boone County since last Wednesday are people under 24 — health officials are worried about what will happen when schools and colleges reopen next month.
"If we can’t keep it under control in that small number we have now, we are very, very concerned about what will happen when the students come back," Scott Clardy, assistant director of the Columbia-Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services said Tuesday.
The symptoms experienced by most people that age are mild but they can spread it quickly to others if they are not careful, Clardy said.
"They are not taking social distancing seriously," he said.
The department has asked the Boone County Commission to release more than $2 million in federal pandemic funding to hire more contact tracers and pay for COVID-19 tests for uninsured people, an expense currently being borne by area hospitals, Clardy said.
In his daily briefing, Gov. Mike Parson focused his opening remarks on the need for young people to be cautious.
The average age of people infected with the coronavirus is falling each day, Parson noted.
"Young, healthy people are more likely to have milder symptoms and quick recovery but what is concerning about this is that they may unknowingly carry the virus to older people or people with underlying conditions," Parson said.
There were 936 new infections and 10 additional deaths reported by the state on Tuesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 28,826 confirmed cases and 1,093 deaths.
Boone County reported 13 new cases locally, bringing the total to 777.
Of the new cases, nearly two-thirds are in the St. Louis, Kansas City and southwest Missouri regions that have been hard-hit in recent weeks.
The 1,693 cases reported in the first three days of the week represents a 20-percent increase over the same period last week.
In the opening part of the Tuesday briefing, Parson also repeated something he has said often — that people should maintain 6 feet of social distance and, if they cannot, they should wear a mask.
Later, reporters questioned whether Parson is following his own advice. Photos from the Cattlemen’s Steak Fry on Saturday show an unmasked Parson standing within 6 feet of someone while conversing and shoulder-to-shoulder with his wife and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and his wife.
"I think I was social distancing," Parson said in defense of his actions. "I think everywhere I go I try keep in mind the social distancing part of it."
It is impossible, as governor, to always maintain 6 feet of distance, Parson said. But he said he keeps those interactions short and uses hand sanitizer if he shakes hands.
In a short video from the event, Parson drew cheers when he said he would not mandate masks.
"And you don’t need government to tell you to wear a dang mask," Parson said to cheers and applause. "If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask."
In the briefing, Parson said he puts a mask on when appropriate.
"The whole thing is, you know, people are going to have to take that responsibility on theirselves," Parson said. "I’ve worn a mask when I have been asked to wear a mask, and when there are requirements to wear a mask, I wear a mask. If I feel I can keep that space, I don’t wear a mask."
One of the indicators being watched carefully are hospitalizations.
Statewide, the Department of Health and Human Services reported 955 coronavirus inpatients as of Friday, the highest since May 5, when hospitalizations peaked at 984. The seven-day average of hospitalizations on Friday was 836, the highest since May 11.
Hospitalizations in Boone County reached a peak Monday, with 27 inpatients.
And with an average of more than 30 new cases each day, that number should increase, Clardy said.
"More and more people are starting to get sicker because of the virus," he said.
So far, he said, area hospitals are reporting they can handle the additional patients, Clardy said.
The third Boone County COVID-19 death, a person between the ages of 45 and 49, was reported Monday. No information is being provided that could identify them.
The person, was someone who had been hospitalized and had contracted the disease since cases started their rapid local rise in the third week of May, Clardy said.
"We expect to see hospitalizations continue to increase," Clardy said.
Elsewhere, with the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus rising sharply in some areas near St. Louis, hospitalizations in the region are starting to increase too.
Data from the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force shows that the seven-day average for coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the region is now 28, the highest level since mid-May.
St. Charles County is emerging as a new hot spot, said Dr. Alex Garza of the pandemic task force.
St. Charles County is Missouri's third-largest county with 402,000 residents and has reported 690 new confirmed cases over the past 14 days, compared to 153 cases in the previous 14-day period. On Monday, the county cited the deaths of three elderly residents from long-term care facilities, bringing the number of deaths in the county to 80 since the pandemic began.
Concerns are so high at the General Motors plant in Wentzville that about 1,200 third shift workers were laid off Monday, in part because many employees are not reporting to work out of fear of becoming infected, GM spokesman Dave Barnas said. A United Auto Workers official said there have been at least 23 confirmed cases at the plant. The sprawling plant is one of the county's largest employers.
St. Charles County followed the lead of Parson in reopening its economy in mid-June, though County Executive Steve Ehlmann, like his fellow Republican Parson, has often urged people to wear facial coverings, maintain social distancing and take other precautionary steps.
Garza said it's clear that many people are ignoring that advice.
"Again, I think we got lulled into a false sense of security by thinking the virus has either gone away or (is) not as dangerous as we thought it had been, so now it's seeing a resurgence because of all of those things, unfortunately," Garza said.
County spokeswoman Mary Enger said Ehlmann and the county health department are monitoring the situation and, if trends continue, "everything is on the table."
Springfield has joined the growing list of Missouri jurisdictions requiring facial coverings in most public settings. The City Council approved an emergency ordinance Monday night. Columbia, St. Louis city and county, Kansas City and Jackson County and several other cities and counties also have mandated masks or other facial coverings in the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.