With COVID cases rising, state health chief tells young people: ‘We need you to wear a mask’
As Missouri reported record one-day increases in coronavirus cases this week, the state’s top health official made a special appeal to younger people: Wear a mask and social distance before things get out of hand.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Dr. Randall Williams explained the recent surge in cases the same way others have been for weeks: as a phenomenon driven by people 45 and younger returning to work and their social lives as states reopen.
The shift from earlier spikes weighted more toward older people has its upside because younger people are more likely to survive and avoid serious illness.
That also helps explain why the numbers of people going to the hospital and dying haven’t spiked as quickly as they did in the spring.
But Williams said that won’t stop the cold math of rapid spread from catching up to everyone if Missouri's younger residents don’t start taking precautions.
“While we’re thankful that it’s not our most vulnerable populations,” he said, “we also believe that as that denominator increases, that it has a great potential to increase the numerator, the number of people who get seriously ill, the people who die.”
“And so to all you young people out there,” he continued, “we are clearly seeing that people are not practicing social distancing or using hand-washing or using masks, and we really need you to do that.”
He suggested people have fun with the idea, donning a Kansas City Chiefs mask that matched his customary bow tie, but said more people had to take precautions either way.
“If you're a young person, and you're at a pool or at a bar, and you've decided you want to be within 2 feet of people, you need to wear a mask,” he said. “If you're at an event and you're within 3 feet of somebody, you need to wear a mask.”
Williams declined to endorse legally requiring people to do so as other states have, though.
When asked why Thursday, Williams said that 60 percent of the cases confirmed in the state so far have been found in St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as St. Louis, St. Charles and Jackson counties.
He said he supports recent efforts by local leaders in those areas to impose their own local masking requirements but has to consider the difference between them and counties with far fewer cases.
That isn’t the only way to measure the situation, though.
While it’s true St. Louis County has reported by far the most cases of any county in the state, its 7,761 cases as of Saturday made up just .74 percent of its population.
McDonald County, a recent coronavirus hot spot in the state's southwest corner, had reported 849 cases as of Friday, equal to 3.7 percent of its population.
Nevertheless, St. Louis County has a mask ordinance designed to slow the spread while McDonald County does not, despite the latter lacking the hospital beds and public health capacity of a larger county.
And while state officials generally cast their approach as support for local control, local officials in regional hubs like Springfield have long said that kind of thinking is flawed.
That's because hospitals in urban areas treat people in urban and rural areas, they say, meaning that efforts to keep them from getting overwhelmed would work best on a regional or statewide basis.
Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican and Williams' boss, has repeatedly questioned the viability of enforcing statewide requirements, including his own social distancing order that expired June 15.
At the same time, he has repeatedly talked about the need for people to take personal responsibility for their safety and the safety of others, and did so again Friday.
"You can't expect anybody to enforce somebody staying 6 feet apart," he told reporters after signing a new law in Springfield. "You gotta take that upon yourself to do that. You gotta take it upon yourself on your personal hygeine. All of those things take some self-discipline among the people in the state, and I think for the large part, most people are trying to do the right thing."
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.