House panel told Missouri is ready for coronavirus

A Missouri House panel today heard from three doctors, including the Director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, about how ready the state is for the coronavirus.

Doctor Randall Williams, Director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Legislators heard Missouri is very prepared and that the best thing Missourians can do to prevent the disease from spreading is wash their hands.

“We have been meeting daily since January 27,” DHSS Director Randall Williams told lawmakers.  “I believe we are very well prepared.  Our motto is, ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,’ and we think we are prepared for both.”

More than 100 people had been confirmed to have the coronavirus in the United States and it is responsible for six deaths in this country as of Monday afternoon.  The disease has killed more than 3,000 people globally.   House Speaker Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield) created the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention to assess Missouri’s readiness for the disease to appear here.

Doctor Stevan Whitt with the University of Missouri Health System deals with infectious diseases.  He told committee chairman Jonathan Patterson (R-Lees Summit) the current rates of infections and deaths suggest a 3.3-percent mortality rate with coronavirus.

“Which means you have about a 97-percent rate of survival even if you get the virus,” said Whitt.

“And that number’s probably even lower given that there’s been underreporting of the cases,” said Patterson.

“We know there are asymptomatic people who would never have gone to a doctor and never gotten tested, so in all likelihood those numbers are higher,” said Whitt.

Representative Jonathan Patterson (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Williams noted that the mortality rate is twenty times greater than the flu.

“It’s two percent and the flu is one in 1,000, so you’re talking about two out of 100 versus one in 1,000, so that’s concerning,” said Williams.

No cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Missouri.  Williams, who has been in regular contact with federal officials and his counterparts from other states, said samples from fewer than 15 patients in Missouri are being tested for the virus, while California has tested more than 460 people.

Whitt said corona is very much like the common cold or flu in the symptoms that a person presents.

“You get it from coughing, sneezing, runny nose; all the usual things, contact, close contact with somebody who’s had it, inhalation of droplets – especially a large amount of droplets from somebody who you’re very close to, distance wise,” said Whitt.  “We know that cases can be everywhere from completely asymptomatic to death.  Most of the deaths are associated with lung involvement and inability to appropriately oxygenate, similar to influenza.”

The doctors told lawmakers that the state has a plan in place for dealing with a pandemic and those plans were made available to lawmakers and the media.  They also said the best things the public can do to protect against coronavirus and stem its spread are the same things commonly recommended to keep healthy.

“Starting today we’re pushing out to all 50,000 state employees our messaging that the most important thing that will keep people from dying in this epidemic is that … soap.  It’s public health 101,” said Williams.

“If you’re sick, please stay at home.  If you’re sick and need to go see a doctor please check in, tell them about your symptoms.  Usually you’ll be given a mask if part of your symptoms are fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath, and please put on the mask,” said Whitt.  “If you’re sick and do not need to be in the hospital or see a doctor just stay home, call in sick.  I would encourage [legislators] to help us encourage employers to give very lenient practices to people who are sick and want to stay home during this time.”

Whitt said another concern is the “classic hoarding mentality” applying to things like masks.  He said for people who are not sick to wear those affords them very little protection.

“They protect mostly the person from disseminating the disease.  For instance the regular surgical masks that are the recommended masks for people who are ill, they don’t really filter air.  What they do is they trap particles … that’s what happens when you cough into one, that’s what happens when you sneeze into one,” said Whitt.  “If, on the other hand, the person who is the source of infection is not wearing the mask but you are, you still breathe around the edges, you still breathe around the gaps in the top around your nose.  It’s not very protective for individuals who are not sick.  It’s protective of groups of people to put it on the sick person.”

The doctors also recommended that those who haven’t gotten a flu shot go ahead and do so, as cases of the flu continue to rise.

Williams said the state health lab in Jefferson City now has the capability to test for coronavirus and have a result in six hours.

Doctors said another concern if the disease reaches Missouri will be in hospital and clinic staffing if staff members begin getting sick.

Speaker Haahr said the legislature is prepared to act as needed to support the response to coronavirus, including by appropriating funds or giving authority for the spending of federal funds.  He said the citizens of Missouri should know their government is prepared to protect them from the virus, and said he has complete faith in Williams to head up the state’s response.

The committee will hold additional hearings on an as-needed basis.