ST. CHARLES COUNTY — As the coronavirus spreads like wildfire across Missouri, St. Charles County case numbers have grown to record highs.
Cases have more than tripled since the start of July, to almost 3,900 this week from about 1,100 a month ago. Officials, working to keep residents safe but also protect their freedoms, have urged businesses, shoppers and diners to follow social distancing and masking recommendations. But they still say that new public health restrictions are unlikely.
“Our numbers just skyrocketed,” said Demetrius Cianci-Chapman, St. Charles County’s public health department director. “We’re not slowing down. We’re still having the same rate of new cases that we were seeing throughout July.”
Nick Wilson, an employee of Maryland Heights-based Gas Appliance Service, said, as he cleaned streetlights on Main Street in St. Charles on Monday, that passersby were keeping a safe distance. “I give you about 50/50 on people wearing masks, though,” he added.
St. Charles County is not alone. Neighboring Jefferson and Franklin counties have also been hit hard. Both saw their case counts more than double over the course of July. And the state broke one-day records for new cases multiple times last month, posting a record-high seven-day average of 1,591 on July 30, up from just 437 on July 1, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis. Last week a White House task force placed Missouri on a list of 21 states considered in the “red zone” for new COVID-19 cases.
Jefferson County Health Department Director Kelley Vollmar said she is planning to recommend new public health restrictions to the county board — which may include limits on mass gatherings, and capacity levels for businesses. Vollmar said that further steps must be taken to limit further spread of the virus, especially before the beginning of the school year. So far, Jefferson County has not enacted any restrictions beyond those at the state level, she said.
Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said at his Wednesday news conference that the region’s hospitalization numbers, which include St. Charles County, dipped slightly, but were still part of a “troubling” trend.
“It builds on the narrative that we have too much virus circulating in our communities,” he said. “We’re far from out of the woods.”
‘It just kept happening’
On July 7, St. Charles County broke its previous one-day record for new cases. It happened again on July 9, then again on July 14, and again on July 20.
“It just kept happening,” said Cianci-Chapman, the health department director. “And I can’t attribute it to any one thing. The vast majority of these cases have nothing to do with each other. ... I think it’s just wide and exponential community spread.”
The county’s 14-day moving average of new cases exceeded 100 every day from July 24 to Aug. 3. Before July, the county’s highest ever 14-day average was 24, on April 13.
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said the county is not currently planning to enact any additional public health restrictions related to COVID-19. The county will try to educate residents on the necessity of taking precautions, and will continue to distribute masks.
“You can order it, or you can try to educate people and convince them it’s the right thing to do, and we’ve decided to go with the latter of those two strategies,” Ehlmann said.
“We want people to wear masks,” Cianci-Chapman said. “We’re just not telling them that they have to because, frankly, it is an extremely difficult thing to police. I do think that, given the surge of cases, that people need to be more cautious and that business owners need to consider what’s in place to protect their employees and their patrons.”
Tom Feldewerth, owner of the Flower Petaler on Main Street in St. Charles’ historic district, said customers have generally been following social distancing guidelines in his store. But he does not confront those who don’t wear masks.
“Some people think it’s their right not to wear one, and I get that,” Feldewerth said. “It’s their prerogative.”
Andres Acosta, a 30-year-old resident of St. Charles, was walking down South Main Street on Monday afternoon with his wife, Karina Veit, and their goldendoodle, Rawlings. Acosta said they carry masks with them everywhere, and wear them whenever they go inside a building.
“I’m not opposed to having a mask mandate,” Acosta said.
Acosta said he believes public health measures should be enacted on the state level. He coaches soccer at a club in St. Louis, where there are restrictions on the number of players who can be gathered at one practice. But a few miles down the road, other teams in the league don’t have to follow any such guidelines, he said.
Still, he sees more and more people wearing masks every day.
Larisa Hairston, 51, of Olivette, was shopping in St. Charles on Monday afternoon. While she browsed at the Bike Stop Outpost, she wore a black mask with the word “faith” printed on it in white letters. She said she wore it because the store had a sign asking customers to wear a mask, but in two other stores without signs, she had shopped without a mask on.
“If they have a sign, I wear a mask,” Hairston said.
But she said she doesn’t think they work — and believes the reported COVID-19 statistics are falsified, and politically motivated.
‘Not slowing down’
Cianci-Chapman said county contact tracers are having a hard time tracking down where some patients are getting infected. He suspects some may know and are afraid to say. Others are just in contact with a large number of people, and truly don’t know where they may have been infected.
Dr. Doug Barton, the vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer for SSM Health St. Joseph Hospitals in St. Charles and Wentzville, said that the hospitals there have been busier, because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases arriving just as elective procedures ramped back up.
Barton said he would like to see more masking in the community, and he sees some value in mandates.
“But ... I think it’s very hard to enforce a mandate, so it’s questionable whether taking it further would be truly helpful,” he added.
He said he would urge the public to wear masks, practice hand hygiene and social distance, because those measures will decrease transmission and mortality rates.
“I think the one thing that continues to be frightening to me, as I look at some of the social media, is this persistent concern that maybe this pandemic’s not real,” Barton said. “The pandemic is real. People are dying as a result of catching COVID. It is a serious illness.