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As virus extends its reach, a new reality sets in for St. Louis region and beyond

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ST. LOUIS — As authorities moved swiftly in recent days to contain further outbreak of the coronavirus, a new normal is unfolding across the region. Large crowds are difficult to find, schools are shuttering for weeks at a time and phrases like “social distancing” lead conversations.

A historic series of events has played out at a dizzying pace: St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered no gatherings of more than 1,000 people; St. Louis County Executive Sam Page set the number at a more restrictive 250. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared a state emergency hours after President Donald Trump enacted a national one, and Pritzker later went a step further by ordering all schools to close beginning Tuesday.

The pronouncements and public safety measures could disrupt everyday life here for several months. But officials have hustled to assure that public services will continue.

“There’s no reason to panic,” Page said Friday. “The lights are going to stay on in the St. Louis region. There will be water. There will be food. We just need to be smart. We need to slow down the spread of this virus in our community while we stand up our medical response, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

As of Saturday, five people in Missouri have tested positive for COVID-19: two in St. Louis County, two in Greene County, and one in Henry County. In Illinois, the number of people testing positive now exceeds 60 as of Saturday, including two in St. Clair County. Cases nationally have topped 2,500. More than 153,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus across the world and 5,788 have died, according to a tally by Reuters.

The spread of the virus has led area colleges and universities to extend spring break and turn their campuses into virtual learning centers. On Saturday, the Ferguson-Florissant School District announced it will close schools Wednesday through April 3. The St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training has been canceled and opening day delayed by at least two weeks. The hockey season for the Blues and other teams is on hold. The St. Louis BattleHawks and other XFL teams had the rest of their seasons canceled.

Events across the region have been canceled, moved online or postponed — from spelling bees to fundraisers, concerts to trivia nights, networking events to book signings and St. Patrick’s Day parades. Restrictions on access to nursing homes, jails, businesses, courthouses and other public and private institutions have been announced.

Dr. Stephen Liang, an infectious disease expert and assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine, said it could take several months to begin returning to normal, depending on how well health officials slow or reduce transmission of the virus, as well as other factors.

Experts emphasize that the response measures adopted now will shape how severely the virus affects the region in the coming weeks. Action taken today will determine whether the region “flattens the curve” of infection, they say. An ineffective response could allow the virus to spread and overwhelm the regional health system.

“The things we’re already doing, even though they’re already inconveniencing people … all of that is already helping break the chain of transmission,” said Dr. Sarah George, a St. Louis University associate professor of infectious diseases, allergy and immunology. “People get this from other people.”

George and other experts say St. Louis has some factors working in its favor. For one, the city doesn’t see the kind of international travel that has contributed to outbreaks elsewhere, such as Seattle. By lagging behind on the transmission curve, the St. Louis area has the benefit of forewarning, greater public awareness and learning from practices used elsewhere.

George said places such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have helped provide blueprints for tamping down transmission.

‘This is unprecedented’

Roughly 80% of those infected show few or no symptoms. The World Health Organization says 15% of cases can be expected to be severe and 5% critical, requiring a ventilator. The elderly and those with underlying diseases are most vulnerable.

Although COVID-19 doesn’t spread as easily as the flu, it is far deadlier, the WHO says. Researchers don’t have solid data on the mortality rate, but it exceeds 1%. The flu kills about 0.1% of those infected.

“This is unprecedented. This is something that is a serious public health risk,” said Dr. Steven Lawrence, another infectious disease expert at Washington University.

Some businesses are inviting or ordering employees to work from home. Others are sending employees home if they show a fever.

Krewson, the St. Louis mayor, said this week that airport traffic was down about 30%. Restaurants, hotels and shops have started to feel the effects of cancellations, and other economic impacts are inevitable.

Those confirmed to be infected can expect lengthy quarantine periods: Even after testing negative twice for the virus, they will have to isolate themselves an additional 14 days, according to St. Louis County guidelines.

The actions being taken today may be reminiscent of the extreme measures used in St. Louis to combat the 1918 Spanish flu, a far deadlier virus. City health commissioner Dr. Max C. Starkloff ordered schools, movie theaters, bars, sporting events and other public gathering spots closed, and he suspended Sunday church services, later adding most businesses.

That flu is estimated to have affected 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, and killed 50 million, including 675,000 in the U.S., the CDC says.

“Stay calm. The city is prepared for this,” St. Louis fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson said at a news conference Thursday, adding, “I am very confident … we will get through this.”

Jenkerson and other city officials have stressed that they’ve been preparing for the arrival of COVID-19 for weeks.

Sarah Gamblin-Luig, deputy commissioner of St. Louis’ emergency management agency, said utilities and other companies have continuity plans in case of emergencies.

Tim Herrmann, a senior vice president with Ameren, said in an email, “We are prepared and are taking measures daily to help protect our co-workers and secure our facilities, so we can continue providing safe and reliable service to our customers.”

Police, fire and EMS workers have protective gear, as do doctors and nurses. But they will have to self-quarantine if they start to show symptoms that match those caused by the virus. The St. Louis County Police Department has asked retired officers if they would be willing to return if needed, a spokesman said.

A controllable pandemic

The WHO said that although COVID-19 is a pandemic, it is a controllable one.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised a four-prong strategy — prepare; “find, isolate, test and treat” every case; reduce transmission; and research ways to prevent infections and save lives.

Gov. Parson on Friday said that the state had tested 94 people; 90 were negative.

State health officials have been restricting the tests to those with certain symptoms and exposure to someone infected or with a history of travel to certain countries. A number of commercial labs are now offering tests with only a doctor’s order.

Officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have faulted the amount of testing done so far in the U.S., just a tiny fraction of the testing elsewhere in the world.

Locally, Liang, the Washington University professor, said, “I certainly feel that we are not testing enough to get a sense of how widespread infections are in our community,” but he said that was likely to improve.

The first drive-thru coronavirus testing site in the St. Louis area opened Saturday.

Health officials and researchers have been stressing the importance of hand-washing and other sanitary measures, and of social distancing. Many officials recommend having at least three days’ worth of food, medicine and other supplies on hand.

“These are all incremental measures that will help to be able to reduce the peak of activity when it does eventually reach our community with more frequency,” Lawrence said.

“Everything that is being done now is to prevent a very large number of sick people all at once. Because that situation will have the potential to overwhelm our health care capacity,” he said. While the health measures are “certainly inconvenient” and “potentially very disruptive,” the more they’re followed, “the better our community will come out of all of this.”

“We’re all in this together,” he said.

Jesse Bogan of the Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Updated at 6:15 p.m. Saturday with new information.

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