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St. Louis city, county officials mull new mask mandate

St. Louis city, county officials mull new mask mandate

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Masking on campus

Washington University MBA students Justin Matthews, left and Samridhi Sureka, walk on campus Tuesday. Both students said they were vaccinated and feel comfortable not wearing a mask, but Washington University requires indoor masking along with full vaccinations.

Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — Area health officials on Tuesday called for all residents to wear masks in public to prevent spread of the new, more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. And St. Louis city and county leaders said they are considering another mask mandate.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force on Tuesday sent out a plea for all residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to return to wearing masks in public when around others whose vaccination status is unknown. The message comes as a surge of COVID-19 grows in the state’s southwest region and continues to spread east toward St. Louis.

Dr. Clay Dunagan, BJC HealthCare’s chief clinical officer and acting head of the task force, said Tuesday that action is needed now to curb the virus from causing more illness and harm here.

“The curve is steep,” Dunagan said. “And we have only two things at our disposal: vaccines and masking.”

Meanwhile, St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders said Tuesday that they are concerned by the rising local case numbers and are aware that other cities and counties are discussing or even reinstating mask mandates.

“While we do not have an announcement to make today, this is a topic of conversation,” said city and county officials in a joint statement. “For the moment, we will continue to urge everyone to wear masks, even if you are vaccinated.”

The pandemic task force, which is composed of leaders of the area’s major hospital systems, said without a dramatic return to regular masking in public places as well as more vaccinations, hospitals could once again reach a point of imposing visitor restrictions and delaying elective procedures.

St. Louis’ hospitals were already busy before the rebound in COVID-19 cases. They were catching up with elective care that had been delayed earlier in the pandemic, and many health care workers were experiencing burnout.

“Now to put COVID on top of that, it really is going to test the capacity of the health system,” Dunagan said.

If the St. Louis region followed the same trajectory as southwest Missouri, Dunagan said, hospitals would be a few weeks away from beginning to cancel some elective care. Broadly, the St. Louis area has higher vaccination rates than southwest Missouri, which may help slow the curve, he said.

The task force reported 49 new COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals in the area, and a total of 279 across area BJC, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital facilities — up from 93 on June 9. Task force data lags two days.

“This is moving pretty quickly, and the nature of these episodes, as we’ve discovered, is that they expand faster than you can keep up with them,” Dunagan said. “By the time you really wake up to it, there’s often a lot more people who are sick than you realized.”

$1,000 tuition discounts

Universities across the state are grappling with the start of the fall term.

Officials in Springfield, Missouri, on Tuesday said they will use incentives to spur vaccinations among college students. Drury University will not require vaccinations or masks but is rolling out a system of incentives, including $1,000 tuition discounts, parking passes, $100 bookstore vouchers and even a laptop. If 55% of the student body is vaccinated, the school will hold a campus event, and if 70% are vaccinated, the fall break will be extended from four days to five days.

Fontbonne University, in Clayton, has said students and staff are “strongly encouraged” to be fully vaccinated before the fall semester begins, but the school has not yet decided whether masks will be required indoors.

Lindenwood University, in St. Charles, is encouraging but not requiring vaccinations for students, faculty and staff. Masks are required indoors for unvaccinated people, said communications director Julee Mitsler, and vaccinated people are encouraged to wear masks indoors. Should cases continue to increase, the mask policy may be adjusted.

“Universities are all working incredibly hard to make sure that they’re taking care of their students,” Mitsler said. “There’s no right answer, and there’s no perfect solution. ... This is not easy to navigate.”

Washington University and St. Louis University will both require the vaccines.

Washington University’s COVID-19 policy requires masks for everyone in indoor public spaces such as lobbies and large classrooms. For indoor gatherings with 30 or fewer people, masking is optional for anyone who is fully vaccinated.

St. Louis University is not planning to require masks when students return for the fall semester. Though a small number of people may have vaccine exemptions, St. Louis University will be considered a “fully vaccinated campus” and will not need to require them under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, said Terri Rebmann, professor of epidemiology and special assistant to the university president.

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