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Cape County mask mandate may be lowered


Members of the
Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center Board of Trustees are looking at
changing their mask mandate to a recommendation, if the number of new COVID-19
cases continue to stay low for two full weeks.

 

The
county has had a rolling 14-day case count under 200 since Feb. 21, with a
14-day case count of 132 on Monday, March 1. Before Feb. 21, the last time the
14-day case count in Cape Girardeau County was under 200 was in August 2020.

 

The
public health center’s mask order went into effect in July 2020 and was amended
in October 2020 to state that the mask mandate would be lowered to “strongly
recommended” if a CO-VID-19 vaccine is widely available to the general public,
if a highly-effective therapeutic treatment became widely available or if the
14-day case count was below 200 for two weeks and the rate of COVID-19 tests
coming back positive in the county was below five percent for a two-week
period.

 

While
the public health center reported on March 1 that the 14-day positivity rate
was 9.45 percent, almost double what the order states is required for the mask
mandate to be lowered, the board is considering ignoring the positivity rate
because it is no longer a good indication of the rate of COVID-19 in the
community.

 

“I’ve
never been a real big fan of the positivity rate,” Dr. John Russell, Cape
County Public Health Center medical director, said. “As we normalize our health
care activity and cases go down, the positivity rate may go up.”

 

Russell
explained that as the case rate goes down, COVID-19 testing is transitioning
from being a broad population-based screening tool to one where testing is only
used as a diagnostic test for those who have symptoms. Russell said in this
case, the positivity rate could be 70 percent or higher, even though the number
of cases remain low.

 

Board
member Diane Howard added that the use of testing was different when the order
was first introduced and then amended. “When an individual became aware they
were positive for COVID, that often would result in five or 10 or 15 other
individuals being tested because they had close contact with the individual,”
Howard said, adding that only a few of those tested would test positive at the
time.

 

Russell said the use
of testing as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is not as feasible when
there is community spread of the virus. “The point of broad-screening testing
is to try to do something with isolation, quarantine and contact tracing to
handle the spread,” he said. “Well, we’ve had widespread, community spread in
the county now for several months.”

 

Russell added that
the other criteria stating that vaccines must be available to the general
public might be met soon.

 

“With the continued
falling cases, having essentially reached the majority of long-term care
facilities and having made a significant dent in the vulnerable population, I
don’t know how long the state is going to be able to hold off not expanding
vaccination,” Russell said during the Feb. 23 board meeting. The state
announced after the meeting that the next phase of vaccine availability would
open on March 15.

 

All members of the
board indicated that they would be open to have a special board meeting two
weeks from their Feb. 23 meeting to amend the order if the rolling 14-day case
count remains under 200 cases.

 

If the mandate was
lowered due to low cases in the county, the order currently states that the
mask mandate would revert to “required” if the rolling case county goes above
250 for a two-week period.

 

The five-person board
is currently running with only four members, due to the death of Chairperson
Roland Sanders on Jan. 30. Vice Chairperson Georganne Syler recognized the
service of Sanders, who had served on the board since 1999. “His contribution
is immeasurable,” Syler said.

 

An
election on April 6 will determine who will serve in the four board seats
currently held by Syler, Emily Collins, John Freeze and Diane Howard. All four
incumbents are running for reelection. After the election, the Cape Girardeau
County Commissioners will appoint someone to finish Sander’s term.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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