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After Missouri Loosens School Quarantine Guidance, Kansas City Leaders Call For More Restrictions To Curb Coronavirus Surge

111320_cm_COVIDTesting
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Christina LeClair, a medical assistant at Truman Medical Center, tests a drive-through customer for COVID-19 on Oct. 28.

Kansas City health officials released a “call to action” Friday, asking communities to enforce mask mandates, restrict social interaction and close bars and restaurants at 10 p.m.

The Kansas City region is at a “critical point” with coronavirus transmission and public health directors warned Friday of further restrictions because the health care system is so stressed.

The day after Missouri Gov. Mike Parson loosened guidelines for schools, Kansas City health leaders on Friday went in the opposite direction, asking metro residents to avoid in-person interactions, wear masks and stay away from gatherings with more than 10 people. The plea was signed by the Kansas City and Unified Government health directors as well as health departments in Johnson, Jackson, Platte and Clay counties.

The Kansas City region has seen more than 900 deaths due to the coronavirus and is averaging 4,370 new cases a week. Daily new hospitalizations are also increasing, with a record of 156 Thursday.

“We fully understand the impact that stay-at-home orders have on our local economy. However, COVID-19 transmission cannot continue to rage out of control in our community given the severe strain on our health and medical systems,” the statement said.

The root of the problem, health leaders said, was the shortage of hospital beds, as well as staffing shortages, that put a strain on hospitals and testing centers.

“Further uncontrolled spread of this disease poses a serious threat to our businesses and local economy, creates a risk for our children’s education and well-being, and forces hospitals to possibly ration care, which would have very negative health consequences for the entire community,” the letter states.

The letter calls for local leaders to take action including broader enforcement of mask mandates, requiring bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m., limiting in-person gatherings and ensuring social distancing at sports events.

The urgent warning comes as Missouri relaxed quarantine guidance for K-12 schools this week. Kansas City officials reacted sharply on Thursday to the state’s issuance of new recommendations that say if everybody’s wearing a mask, a student doesn’t need to quarantine even if they are exposed to the coronavirus at school. In Missouri, cities and counties have taken the lead in instituting more restrictive coronavirus protections.

"From the beginning of the pandemic, Governor Parson has always supported the wearing of masks," the governor's spokeswoman said in an email Friday. "He also has encouraged and reminded Missourians on how important it is to social distance and to practice personal hygiene."

Schools can decide whether to follow the guidance, but it is only recommended for K-12 schools with mask mandates. Kansas City leaders and some health departments pointed out that the new guidelines don’t follow CDC guidance. The Missouri State Medical Association said the change “defies common sense.”

While Parson reiterated Thursday that he doesn’t plan to institute a statewide mask mandate, some officials hope the new guidance will push more schools to implement mask requirements.

A spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association said it’s difficult to know if the new guidance will ease staffing pressures.

“It’s certainly possible that it could relieve some pressure for parents that are having difficulties with childcare or home-based schooling,” Dave Dillion said in an email. “However, at the same time, it could expand the number of workers who could face illness transmission or quarantine if students are exposed at school and bring COVID-19 home.”

Others hoped that the state guideline will lead to better mask usage.

“We do think that this change will ultimately result in more schools implementing a mask requirement at the local level, helping school leaders, local boards of education and families see yet another added benefit to that consistent mask-wearing,” said Mallory McGowin, a Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman.

Heidi Lucas, Missouri Nurses Association state director, said she has “mixed feelings” on the state’s guidance. Her husband teaches in a rural school in Osage County without a mask mandate.

“Part of me says, OK, well, if this new guidance makes these rural schools wear masks in the classroom, finally, then I am understanding of why they changed it,” Lucas said. “The other part of me is screaming at them, ‘We need to listen to science. Everybody should be wearing a mask already.’”

At a press conference Thursday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said the updated guidance was based, in part, on feedback from a Washington University infectious disease professor. Parson also said he’s heard that some hospitals have staffing challenges because parents are staying home with kids who are quarantining after school exposure.

“We hope that these new guidelines will give some important relief for these health care workers, as well as all workers that are having to stay at home with their kids in quarantine,” Parson said.

Health departments in Jackson, Clay, Platte and Boone counties have so far not recommended following the state guidance.

“I don’t see how any good can come of this decision. Allowing people who are infected with COVID-19 to remain in a school building defies common sense,” Jeff Howell, general counsel and director of government relations for the Missouri State Medical Association, said in an email. “This would seem to exacerbate the spread of the pandemic.”

In a Facebook post Thursday, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services said it’s “hopeful that this new guidance encourages vigilant mask use” but the department hasn’t made a final decision on whether to go with the recommendations.

“Weakening our quarantine guidelines in schools could reduce the effectiveness of one of our best mitigation strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” the department wrote. “Additionally, local health departments across the state have data showing transmission between child to child, child to adult and adult to child, even in the school setting where masks are mandated.”

It’s unclear to what extent schools will decide to update their quarantine or mask policies. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hasn’t been tracking which schools have a mask requirement in place, according to a spokeswoman.

In Cass County, Pleasant Hill School District Superintendent Steven Meyers said in an email that “the anticipation is that we will follow that guidance when masks are being worn correctly” after the matter is discussed at a Tuesday school board meeting. The district has a mask requirement in place.

The Missouri Hospital Association hasn’t taken a position on the updated guidelines.

“As we have since the beginning of the pandemic, the state’s hospitals encourage all Missourians — in all settings — to follow CDC guidelines to help reduce the spread of the virus,” Dillion said in an email.

The updated state guidance worries high school teacher Levi Maxwell. He teaches government and social studies in Osage County. Masks are required for students walking in the hallway and in the lunchroom when students aren’t eating, but mask-wearing isn’t mandated in the classrooms. He’s married to Heidi Lucas, Missouri Nurses Association state director.

“We want kids to be in school. I fully understand it as a teacher. I would much rather be looking at my kids in the room than through a computer screen,” Maxwell said “...But to do it safely is a different story.”

The district has mainly been in-person, although currently, students are learning remotely because of teacher staffing issues. They head back to the classroom Monday. Maxwell put duct tape on his floor to space out desks and is cleaning tables between classes.

He likes to joke that there are so many added challenges with the pandemic that he wonders when he will find time to teach.

“It weighs on you, like it's stressful,” Maxwell said. “I go home a lot of days and just crash because I'm just wiped out.”

Updated: November 13, 2020 at 5:02 PM CST
Updated at 5 p.m. to include the governor's response.
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