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Kansas City Health Officials Worry Lake of the Ozarks Crowds Are A ‘Recipe For Transmission’

Crowds flocked to Lake of the Ozarks over the Memorial Day weekend.
Crowds flocked to Lake of the Ozarks over the Memorial Day weekend.

Officials with the Kansas City and Jackson County health departments say a surge in cases could put additional pressure on local resources.

Dr. Sarah Boyd had a sinking feeling when she saw the videos of Memorial Day weekend revelers packed into pools and bars at Lake of the Ozarks.

“I thought ‘Oh, no,’” said Boyd, an infectious disease physician at Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City. “It’s understandable that it’s a holiday weekend but it seemed to be being treated like COVID-19 wasn’t going on.”

Kansas City health experts like Boyd are concerned the large gatherings at the Lake of the Ozarks over the Memorial Day weekend could lead to an increase in coronavirus cases in the metro.

Videos circulated on social media over the long holiday weekend showing groups packing pools and bars at the popular summer getaway locale in apparent contravention of social distancing guidelines. In one photo, swimsuit-clad partiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a pool area under a sign urging them to stay six feet apart.

Local public health officials worry that if the partying at Lake of the Ozarks leads to an increase in cases statewide, it could strain local resources for tracing infections. Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health issued a travel advisory Monday evening, asking people traveling back from Lake of the Ozarks to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“It will be extremely unfortunate if our businesses or our residents here in Jackson County have to suffer through extended limitations as far as phased reopening because of an increase of cases due to an event like this,” Ray Dlugolecki, community health division manager for the Jackson County Health Department, said.

The close contact and lack of masks seen in the videos are a “recipe for transmission,” according to Dlugolecki. He said while it’s hard to know what the likelihood is of an uptick in cases, all it takes is one person with the virus to return to their home in another part of the state to create an outbreak cluster.

It will take a couple of weeks to know if the crowds witnessed at Lake of the Ozarks will lead to a broader surge in cases, according to Boyd. She said large group gatherings like the ones seen this past weekend are risky because someone may have the virus and not know.

“People either may already be infected but not be having symptoms for even a couple of days before symptoms appear as well as people who kind of have mild symptoms and think, ‘maybe that’s just my allergies,’” Boyd said.

“If those people are in those larger groups, the closer contact and the longer time you have contact with those infectious people, the higher risk you might contract it as well,” she said.

Kansas City only has a fraction of the contact tracers the health department says it needs to manage the coronavirus. Contact tracers work to notify all of the people who spent more than 10 minutes within a six-foot radius of someone infected with the coronavirus.

“The problem is we still have gotten no federal funds come down to our health department to be able to hire additional staff to be able to work the outbreak,” Kansas City Health Department Director Dr. Rex Archer said. “[If] somebody comes back from the Ozarks and is ill and is now spreading it to other folks, we’ve got to be able to put that fire out and that takes disease investigators, contact tracers to assist in trying to slow this thing down.”

Complicating contact tracing is the fact that many of the people spending the weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks likely come from big metro areas around the Midwest and states neighboring Missouri. This requires more time and resources to track down contacts if someone tests positive for the virus because workers have to notify multiple agencies, according to Dlugolecki.

“It won’t take a lot to overwhelm our capacity that we’ve built up through a lot of sacrifice,” Dlugolecki said.

People have to continue social distancing to prevent “further spread of infections,” according to a statement from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services director.

“The virus can be transmitted even among those young and healthy who aren’t experiencing symptoms,” Dr. Randall Williams said. “When they then carry the virus and transmit it to a more vulnerable person, this is when we tend to see the long-lasting and tragic impact of these decisions that are being made.”

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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