ST. LOUIS — An upswing in COVID-19 cases weeks before schools return to session is prompting agencies across the region to contemplate their mask policies.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page reaffirmed during a briefing Wednesday that mask requirements are a topic of ongoing conversation among county leadership and implored all residents to wear masks in public to prevent the virus’s spread but stopped short of announcing a mandate.
Meanwhile, regional health and education officials weighed options for the approaching school year.
“I hate that we are where we are,” Page said Wednesday. “We have a way out of this pandemic, but not enough people are getting vaccinated to stop this latest wave.”
Missouri reported 3,031 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, a daily case count not seen since mid-January. The state also reported eight more deaths due to the virus.
Cases also have been rising in Illinois, prompting Gov. J.B. Pritzker to warn Tuesday of a possible return to some mitigation measures. State health and elected officials also are closely monitoring the numbers in the Metro East.
“We’re seeing a surge we didn’t expect,” Pritzker said Tuesday in an interview with a Chicago television station. “The delta variant is challenging. Our next neighbor, Missouri, is the worst state in the country, and that bleeds over into Illinois. It has in southern Illinois and Metro East — you’ve seen an awful lot of people have gotten sick or gone to the hospital.”
The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force reported 66 new COVID-19 admissions to area BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s facilities, pushing the seven-day average to 45. And for the first time since Feb. 25, there were 300 confirmed virus patients in total.
St. Louis County
St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders announced the region’s first mask mandates more than a year ago, in July of 2020.
Mask mandates remained a source of contention across the region. In August, the Jefferson County health board approved a mask order despite protests by residents and then revoked the rule the following day over concerns about whether the board had appropriately notified the public of the meeting. The board then passed a mandate in November that lasted until March. Franklin County leaders passed a mask mandate in November and allowed it to expire the following month.
In December, the region received its first doses of vaccine, and in the spring, vaccinations accelerated. On May 13, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear a mask in many indoor settings. The following day, Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones announced similar changes to the city and county mask guidance. By that point, all Missourians 16 and older were eligible for vaccines, and the state’s daily case counts were down significantly from a peak in the winter.
But recently, the more easily transmissible delta variant of the virus has taken hold in southwest Missouri, and case counts have begun to increase in the St. Louis area, too. On Tuesday, the St. Louis task force urged businesses and residents to return to masking. St. Louis and St. Louis County then issued a joint statement saying that mask requirements are “a topic of conversation.”
St. Louis County released updated data on Wednesday on COVID-19 cases among vaccinated people, a relatively uncommon phenomenon known as “breakthrough infections.” The county has identified 527 breakthrough cases so far, according to the department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Emily Doucette.
That equals a rate of about 0.1% of the county’s nearly 444,000 fully vaccinated residents, an increase since April, when the county logged just 0.03%.
County officials said many of the individuals were infected by an unvaccinated person living in their household.
“This suggests that continuous, unmasked exposure to the virus in large quantities may strain the protection that the vaccine provides,” Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, said in a statement.
Khan urged all eligible residents to get vaccinated immediately and to encourage friends and family to do so as well.
Masks in schools
Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to say that only unvaccinated students and teachers need to wear masks in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics took a stricter position Monday, recommending masks for everyone in schools ages 2 and older regardless of vaccination status.
The Madison County Board of Health held a special session Wednesday evening, during which a divided board adopted a resolution “encouraging personal choice” and recommending school districts adopt mask-optional policies this fall. Edwardsville, the largest school district in the county, has not announced its mask policy for this fall but plans to do so in early August.
“The Board of Health believes in the innate common sense, responsibility, and reasonableness of Madison County families and respects their desire to decide for themselves whether their students will wear masks at school depending on individual health and educational concerns,” reads the resolution, in part.
The vote was 18-10 in support of the measure, with one of the 29 board members absent. Dozens of people on both sides of the issue were on hand for the vote, which came after a vigorous debate among members over the nonbinding resolution.
Several area school districts will make masks optional, including Columbia and Waterloo in Monroe County, Wentzville in St. Charles County and the Archdiocese of St. Louis Catholic schools.
Hazelwood school leaders said Wednesday that masks will be required for all students and staff, joining St. Louis Public Schools.
Northwest School District in Jefferson County and Rockwood School District in west St. Louis County dropped their mask mandates for summer school but have not announced plans for fall.
Most other St. Louis-area school districts are awaiting guidance from local health departments and expect to release new COVID-19 prevention plans in early August.
Taylor Tiamoyo Harris of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
These maps and charts show the spread of and vaccination rates against COVID-19 in Missouri and Illinois.