Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Cape County Public Health is concerned about citizens relaxing personal responsibility

In parts of Cape Girardeau over the weekend it looked like many people believed the coronavirus had disappeared. Presto magic. No longer a worry. In two grocery stores I visited, almost no one other than grocery staff wore masks or face coverings. Some restaurants did not appear to be providing proper social distancing. I actually saw two guys at a bar make fun of someone for having a mask on. Elsewhere at a park, two people who hadn't seen each other in a while hugged. This is worrisome, because opening back up will only work if people take personal responsibility and follow health guidelines. A second wave, already deemed "inevitable" by health experts, will come faster and higher.

Personally, I'm in favor of opening up more businesses. But not wearing face coverings and disregarding social distancing is a prescription for worse health and economic results.

This concern was also raised in this week's Q&A by Maria Davis, health educator at Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center. Questions were largely sent in by Southeast Missourian readers. If you have a question, feel free to email me directly. Answers below are provided by Davis.

Q: What is concerning health officials most right now about the coronavirus locally?

A: "The virus is still circulating in our community, and we are trying to understand the extent of infection better," Davis wrote in an email. "We continue to worry about our long-term care facilities and vulnerable populations. We are concerned that people will relax and not continue to follow the guidelines. Ultimately, we have to rely on our community to continue to take personal responsibility for protecting our most vulnerable."

Q: The number of confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Cape County held steady at 49 for a week and a half until going up by one over the weekend. What does that mean to local health authorities?

A: "It could mean the stay-at-home order and control measures worked. However, with re-opening, there is a potential for us to see an increase in cases and another peak."

Q: Contact tracing, which involves identifying everyone who interacted with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 when infectious and taking precautions such as asking those exposed to self-quarantine, has been called vital to mitigating infections. Has the county increased its capability to do contact tracing in the past month. How?

A: "We estimate we may need an additional 2-3 staff members and have informed the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. At this time, we are pulling staff from other departments in the Health Center as needed."

Q: Last week the Cape Girardeau County Commission announced it would use $500,000 of a $9.2 million federal grant to conduct antibody (seroprevalence) tests in the community, which will help identify how many people here may have already been infected and recovered from the disease. Volunteers will take the test, which entails drawing a vial of blood, this week and then be re-tested in 8-12 weeks. From a Cape County communication, I understand: "[These tests are] to help us understand the spread of the disease as well as persistence of antibodies in those that have them." How will Cape County use the data?

A: "The antibody test results data will be analyzed and used to reflect the burden of disease in the population and help guide policy decisions. We are using a secure online survey system, and the information will be kept confidential. Any information released from the study will be in an aggregated format," Davis wrote.

Meanwhile, according to an email from Cape County (disclosure: I was selected as one of the participants), those selected for the study will receive their individual results "within 24 hours of the blood draw. For those individuals that are antibody positive we will be contacting them via phone. ... Any person that does not have a positive antibody test will be sent a secure email notifying them of such."

Q: Several cities and towns -- many working with a firm connected to researchers from Harvard and MIT -- have begun monitoring untreated wastewater for coronavirus. Is Cape County or the City of Cape Girardeau looking at monitoring untreated wastewater for coronavirus?

A: "Not at this time."

Q: What are current plans about re-opening playground equipment, soccer fields, etc.?

A: "The current plan is to recommend re-opening playground equipment, soccer fields, etc. at the end of the month as we enter into Phase II of the governor's plan," wrote Davis. "However, this could change depending on new case trends and the antibody study."

In other developments, two quick updates.

According to The Wall Street Journal, after two White House aides tested positive to COVID-19 over the weekend, officials will be expected to wear masks or face coverings inside the building "except when sitting at their desks." Whether this includes the president and vice-president is still to be determined.

Second update: The state of New York will begin a phased re-opening of businesses on Friday, starting in upstate New York, which was not hit as hard as New York City.

I bring up these two items as a reminder that our best chance for successsfully moving forward involves combining economic re-opening with personal responsibility. The White House, led by President Trump, has pressed to re-open because individuals, families and businesses can't sustain the personal, health and financial costs of keeping the economy locked own. Maybe to reinforce the message of normalcy, maybe because it felt frequent testing was sufficient, maybe because of vanity, the White House had previously eschewed requiring masks. Its decision to require them now should underline to all of us that it is prudent to wear masks or face coverings, especially outside the home when not being able to keep at least six feet separation, especially when interacting with customers and strangers.

Meanwhile, the governor of New York has harshly criticized the president and other governors for gradually seeking to open the economy. And yet, Gov. Cuomo is now facing reality that staying in lockdown indefinitely makes no sense.

Summary: We need to do both. Gradually open up businesses, employing healthy precautions. And take personal responsibility to mitigate the spread of the disease and protect the most vulnerable. That certainly includes business staff wearing masks when interacting with the public, and customers wearing masks or face coverings when shopping. Unfortunately, if my travel around town this weekend was an indicator, too many people are acting as if there is not a killer virus still out there.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. Email questions to: jrust@semissourian.com.