ST. LOUIS — The large crowds of people at the Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend have not led to any more reported cases of COVID-19, Missouri’s top health official health department said Wednesday.
“The answer, to our knowledge, is no,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, said when asked whether more cases have come from the gatherings, photos of which showed throngs of people close together without wearing masks.
Williams answered questions during a daily news briefing in Jefferson City hosted by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to address civil unrest and efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Pictures and videos of the lake crowds had prompted concern among the public and health officials.
One person, a Boone County resident, tested positive last week and likely was infectious while among the crowds. That is according to the Camden County Health Department, which has jurisdiction over much of the Lake of the Ozarks region.
Parson used the news conference to tout improvements in Missouri’s testing strategy, the decreasing percentage of positive cases and big drop in the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19.
About two weeks ago, the governor announced a strategy that included testing hot spots such as meatpacking facilities and testing more people with no symptoms. The goal was to complete 7,500 tests per day. Missouri surpassed the goal and averaged 8,000 tests per day last week, Parson said. About 80 days ago, the state was scrambling to do 100 tests.
The positivity rate — the percentage of tests with positive results — is 6.5%, well below the 10% recorded recently, he said.
Community testing events were held in St. Charles, Jackson and Boone counties last week. Testing in Jefferson, Greene and Cape Girardeau counties is taking place this week.
Over the past month, Parson also said, statewide hospitalizations for COVID-19 have dropped by more than 40%.
“Our hospitals are not overwhelmed. Our positivity rate continues to decline. People are recovering, and we are moving forward,” he said.
Hospital admissions and hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to drop in the St. Louis area, according to data reported Wednesday by the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.
The average number of COVID-19 patients in a hospital over the past week fell to 346 from 354, while the seven-day moving average number for new daily admissions dropped to 19 from 20. The most recent daily report shows 15 people were admitted to hospitals.
The task force compiles numbers from four leading health systems in the region: BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital.
Missouri on Wednesday reported 192 additional positive cases and three additional deaths, increasing the toll to 786. Illinois, by contrast, saw 982 new cases and 97 additional deaths, bringing the number of dead to 5,621.
St. Louis County, which accounts for more than half of the COVID-19-related deaths in the state, recorded 43 new cases, for a total of 6,058, and two additional deaths.
The city of St. Louis reported one additional death from the disease. St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson Counties reported no new deaths. In the Metro East, St. Clair County recorded two new deaths and Madison County had three.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson on Wednesday credited declining numbers to hand washing, social distancing and the city’s stay-home order that lasted eight weeks. But she also said the potential spread of the virus through recent street protests drawing hundreds together is a “big concern” of hers.
“We don’t know what will happen to these numbers after we see the results of lots of people being together in very large groups during the demonstrations and protests. Some folks were wearing masks, some folks weren’t. But certainly, folks were not social distancing,” Krewson said. “So we’ll see — fingers crossed — let’s hope that doesn’t result in a big bump up.”
Dr. Alex Garza, commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said congregating closely increases the probability of spreading the coronavirus. But being outdoors — where the virus can disperse more quickly — and wearing a mask decreases the risk, Garza said.
“We are still not sure how UV light (from the sun) will impact the virus,” he said. “But presumably it will help decrease transmission.”
Things that increase the risk include the density of crowds as well as if demonstrators are yelling and speaking loudly, he said, “which produces greater volumes of droplets and aerosolization of the virus.”
Symptoms on average don’t appear until five or six days after exposure. Some might not experience symptoms.
As far as whether hospitals are able to breathe a sigh of relief after Memorial Day gatherings, Garza said officials “will give it a couple more days.”
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