As of Tuesday, nearly 1 in 40 residents of Howell County had tested positive for COVID-19 since the first positive case on April 1. Late last month, both the county and the city of West Plains were flagged by the White House Coronavirus Task Force as part of the “red zone” due to high positivity rates.
The number of new cases grew dramatically in September and this has generated concern for one local leader, who is urging the county health department to take action.
“Where do we draw the line?” West Plains Councilwoman Jessica Nease asked Howell County Health Department Board members at their monthly meeting Tuesday evening.
Nease, after citing the local increase in the number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, asked board President Dr. Robert Shaw if there would come a point when the board would call for a mask mandate for the county or take any action more than it has until now.
“I don’t know where the line in the sand would be,” Shaw responded.
He and board members reiterated their position that a masking ordinance is unnecessary, asserting that it would hinder individual freedoms and hurt local businesses. Shaw also expressed his belief that enforcement would be impractical and it would be a burden on local law enforcement.
THE RED ZONE
Howell County was counted in a Sept. 27 report by the coronavirus task force as one of 48 Missouri counties in the red zone — and West Plains was identified as one of 12 such localities across the state.
Howell County was one of 10 counties at the time reporting a positivity rate of 20% or higher.
In an Aug. 16 report, the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended to Gov. Mike Parson that Missouri mandate the wearing of face coverings to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, as 40% of the counties were in a red zone at the time, indicating high positivity test rates.
Parson decided against such a measure and has asserted that the virus at that time was largely under control.
Six weeks later, in its Sept. 27 report, the task force continued to hold the state of Missouri in the red zone as 101 new cases per 100,000 people were reported for the last week of the month, ranking Missouri the eighth highest new case rate in the country at that time.
Dr. Shaw reaffirmed during Tuesday’s meeting, the health board still encourages people to wear masks, social distance with 6 feet of space and wash hands, and that education, testing and contract tracing continue to be the best way to help control the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“We have been asked and we have made our decision on this. And yes, it’s a walk between personal freedom and personal responsibility and protecting other people,” Shaw said.
“Besides contract tracing and participating in education (on wearing masks), there will be no other interventions from the health department?” Nease pressed.
“We refuse to have the health department write tickets for people failing to wear masks,” Shaw replied.
Nease asked again if there is any line that could be crossed where the board would change their minds, and once again, Shaw said there is none, as far as he is concerned.
As the meeting continued, Shaw noted there is an outbreak in some of the county’s nursing homes, despite strict controls in place at those facilities. He said those strict controls failed to prevent the spread, and he doubts implementing strict controls countywide — like a mask requirement — would have any effect on the number of new cases.
Nease said she would love to see people take more personal responsibility and follow the recommendations of the health department and local health leaders, including the collaborative Mask Up Ozarks campaign. But, she said, she believes education alone isn’t motivating people to wear face coverings at the rate needed to slow the virus’ spread.
Shaw said he felt compliance shouldn’t be forced, but noted, “Sometimes people have to die for others to do the right thing.”
Administrator Chris Gilliam announced the health department is hiring eight new contact tracers to relieve some of the burden on his staff, some whom have been putting in over 80 hours a week.
“It’s been a challenge,” Gilliam said, noting that, even without empirical data, he and his staff believe the majority of affected county residents are in compliance with isolation and quarantine guidelines when they are recommended.
He added it is his understanding that individuals who repeatedly fail to comply with orders of quarantine and isolation can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor.
Gilliam pointed out to the board that that the county’s positivity test rate target is 5%, but the current rate is much higher than that. As of Tuesday, with 979 positive results out of 8,959 tests, the positivity rate was 10.93%, more than double the target — but high as that is, the rate of positive cases is likely higher still.
When asked by Nease if the number of year-to-date tests reported by the health department represents individual people or individual tests, Gilliam answered that the number reflects how many tests are counted. This means one person can be tested multiple times, and it will count every time, as long the test is negative. Year-to-date positive cases are only counted once.
As of Tuesday, 20% of the 979 total cases were considered active, meaning those confirmed to have the virus were instructed to isolate under the assumption they are contagious. Of Tuesday’s active cases, 18 patients were hospitalized and 11 deaths had been reported.
On Aug. 24, the West Plains City Council struck down a proposed ordinance requiring masks to be worn in public places with a vote of 3-2. Before the vote, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Topliff expressed his opinion that it is the county health department’s responsibility to call for such an ordinance.
The next day, the county health board held its monthly meeting, and Shaw said then that the board would not approve a mask mandate, but if a statewide mask mandate was enacted, the county would comply with the state’s order.
Even after he and First Lady Teresa Parson tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 23, the governor has continued to state he will not issue a statewide mask mandate, leaving it up to communities and individual businesses to decide for themselves.
Shaw said he was unaware of any county-level health departments calling for the requirement of face coverings in Missouri.
Some communities such as Branson and Springfield implemented mask mandates during the summer and have continued to extend them, with Springfield’s being extended through January of next year.
Branson City Council members made their decision with input from the Taney County Health Department that showed a correlation between the use of masks and a reduction in case numbers, the Springfield-News Leader reported last month.
Greene County has seen a slide in the number of new daily COVID cases over the last few weeks, since peaking mid-August, according to task force’s most recent report.
On Monday, with support from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department and a plea from Mayor Ken McClure for “other jurisdictions to step up and stop this thing” and battle the virus as a region, Springfield extended its mask requirement through Jan. 9, the News-Leader reported.
In addition to Shaw, board members include Lynn McKenzie, Judy Ingalsbe, Scott McWilliams and Barbara Alsup. Meetings, open to the public, are typically held at 6:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month in the Howell County Health Department, 180 Kentucky Ave. in West Plains.
The Howell County Health Department posts daily updates on the county’s coronavirus statistics on its Facebook page, “Howell County Health Department.”