Health officials encourage taking precautions as COVID cases spike in region

Jane Wernsman, director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, speaks Friday at a news conference regarding the rise in COVID-19 cases in Cape Girardeau County.
Jeff Long ~ Southeast Missourian

In a calm voice Friday, the director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center laid out in stark terms the most recent toll taken by COVID-19, backed up by the center’s medical director and the leaders of the SoutheastHEALTH and Saint Francis Medical Center hospital systems.

“Our (coronavirus) case counts have been increasing exponentially over the past month, and especially the past two weeks,” said Jane Wernsman, the center’s director.

“As we approach the holidays, people need to continue to practice the measures that can decrease transmission,” she added.

During a chilly outdoor news conference held at the center’s headquarters, the venue chosen for the safety of attendees, Wernsman said the proverbial worm has definitely turned.

“Our rolling 14-day (COVID-19) case count is at 1,249, or an average of 89 new cases a day,” Wernsman said, “but we’ve had more than 100 cases each of the last two days.”

There were 154 new cases reported Wednesday, 127 on Thursday and 159 on Friday in Cape Girardeau County.

Positivity rate explodes

By late October, the county’s positivity test rate, meaning the percentage of new coronavirus cases emerging from COVID-19 tests in the county, was at 10.6% — lower than the state’s announced rate of 12.7%, but what a difference a fortnight makes.

“Our positivity rate is now 26.9%, a 10% jump, a doubling from the previous two-week period,” Wernsman said.

The positive rate in Cape Girardeau County has become notably higher than Missouri’s, which Wernsman said now stands at 23.5%.


“The largest share of new widespread community transmission is of unknown origin,” said Wernsman, while noting increases coming from household contacts, from social and large gatherings and among residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Work and school transmissions, she suggested, have had a lesser impact.

Maryann Reese, president and CEO of Saint Francis Healthcare System, speaks Friday at a news conference regarding the rise in COVID-19 cases in Cape Girardeau County.
Jeff Long ~

Hospital leaders

Maryann Reese, Saint Francis Medical Center president and CEO, used her time at the microphone not to reiterate statistics, but to plead for the public’s cooperation to slow down COVID’s local spread.

“We beg you to mask, to wash hands and please socially distance,” said Reese, who became leader of the hospital system in 2017.

“I have been pleading with our community since March — what else can I say?” Reese asked rhetorically, adding SFMC has been approached by other hospital systems to take their COVID-19 patients.

“Mercy, Missouri Baptist and St. Luke’s (all St. Louis County) are full,” she said.

“We do expect a 50% increase (in cases) by the end of November and we need the public’s help to slow the (COVID) spread,” Reese said.

Ken Bateman, SoutheastHEALTH’s president and CEO, said Thursday his system currently has enough ventilators to handle the surge and said Southeast has activated a 16-bed mobile unit to deal with treatment demands — noting in other parts of Missouri, some hospitals are declining patients because they are at capacity.

“We want to serve our community and invite residents to call us for guidance,” said Bateman, who has led SoutheastHEALTH since 2014, inviting people to call SoutheastHEALTH’s COVID hotline, (573) 519-4983, for assistance.

“If you get COVID, you may experience minor symptoms,” Bateman said, “but the person you potentially give it to may not be so lucky,” adding his voice to the call to follow long-established safety protocols.

Ken Bateman, SoutheastHEALTH's president and CEO, speaks Friday at a news conference regarding the rise in COVID-19 cases in Cape Girardeau County.
Jeff Long ~

Straight talk

Public Health Center medical director Dr. John Russell spoke bluntly Friday.

“What we’re seeing is COVID fatigue,” Russell said, “(and) we’ve lost some of our (safety) behavior as of late — and it’s having a snowball effect.”

Russell added his voice to a unanimous plea to the public.

“Please practice all the non-pharma ways to protect yourself and others: mask, stay home if you are sick and socially distance,” he said.


Russell is not an advocate of COVID lockdowns.

“There is a lot of noise about lockdowns,” Russell said, “but research shows they don’t have a long-term (positive) impact (and) they harm communities,” opining when a school ceases in-person instruction and opts for all-virtual learning, the result is health care workers often have to stay home and take care of their own children.

“At some point, it’s a numbers game,” Russell continued.

Death rate

While COVID cases have jumped substantially in Cape Girardeau County, the death rate has not, Russell said.

“We’ve had 60 deaths, all but four of them in the 70-plus age group,” noting the case-to-death rate remains “stuck” at 1.4%-to-1.5%.