Coronavirus: Local Schools Will Close This Week, May Reopen April 6; County Health Department Advises Against Social Gatherings

Ste. Genevieve County health officials last week talked about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 while fighting the spread of misinformation.

On Sunday evening, Ste. Genevieve R-II School District joined others in the St. Louis region in closing down for two-plus weeks. Schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which includes Catholic schools in Ste. Genevieve County, also joined in closing. The schools will be closed Wednesday, March 18, and would not plan to reopen until Monday, April 6.

Regional health officials and school administrators will evaluate the situation before making a decision on reopening.

The announcement came Sunday night as the state of Missouri had reported five cases of COVID-19.

Nationally, as of Sunday night, there were more than 3,400 cases of coronavirus detected in the United States with 65 deaths. The states of Washington and New York each had more than 700 cases, while California had more than 350. Washington had recorded 42 deaths.

The Center for Disease Control over the weekend recommended that no gatherings of more than 50 people take place in the United States in order to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

County health department director Sandra Bell was advising local organizations late last week to avoid conducting social gatherings. On her recommendation, several organizations in the county were canceling activities through the end of March.

Some of the Lent-related Friday fish fry dinners were canceled, as were the Caregivers Conference scheduled for last Saturday, this week’s GFWC Woman’s Club meeting and an informational meeting for county quilters.

Ste. Genevieve County Memorial Hospital’s annual Taste of Ste. Genevieve fundraiser was postponed from April 4 to August 22.

Bell on Monday said she was recommending no gatherings of 25 or more people take place in the county.

The Ste. Genevieve R-II School District last Thursday sent a letter to parents and guardians that said: “The Ste. Genevieve County Health Department has recommended all social gatherings held throughout the county that would bring in people from other communities be postponed.”

With that, the Ste. Genevieve R-II School District was postponing “all student trips,” canceling “all scheduled professional development days” and rescheduling any events other than normal school days and practices that were scheduled between March 13 and March 29.

While Illinois schools were being closed through the end of March, Missouri Governor Mike Parson on Friday left those decisions in Missouri to be made locally with school districts and county health departments working together.

Bell said this weekend that administrators and health department officials from the St. Louis region had discussions throughout the weekend to make a unified decision. St. Louis County, St. Charles County, the city of St. Louis and Jefferson County agreed to the school shutdown along with the schools of the Mineral Area Athletic Association (MAAA), which includes several St. Francois County schools as well as Ste. Genevieve R-II.

A statement from the MAAA superintendents released Sunday night said: “We are in uncharted territory with planning for the spread of COVID-19. It is difficult to predict where we will be in two days, much less two weeks from now. With that being said, we tentatively plan on welcoming students and staff back on April 6. …

“Our decision aligns with similar actions being taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by our neighboring school districts, including those in Jefferson and St. Louis counties.”

Bell said she has been in communication with Ste. Genevieve R-II School District superintendent Dr. Julie Flieg and Valle Catholic Schools president Rev. Edward Nemeth and other community partners for the past several days.

“It’s been a positive collaborative experience during a horrible situation,” Bell said. “The three of us have worked very well together as have all the community leaders. The hospital has been cooperative, emergency management director Felix Meyer has been very cooperative.

“I’m taking a very cautious approach to everything.

“We are working with all parties to have a united approach to dealing with prevention rather than dealing with response after something has happened.”

Bell said there was no executive order last week to limit social gatherings, but she was encouraged that organizations were receptive to the request.

She also spoke at both the County Commission and Ste. Genevieve Board of Aldermen meetings last Thursday.

“I wanted to get the word out to the community that all of us — the city and county officials, agencies, schools, law enforcement, ambulance, emergency management, medical riders and public health — are definitely working closely, daily, to address issues and situations as they develop in the county and to create a response,” Bell said. “We all stay in close communication with each other and work together to prepare a response to each change of events.”

Ste. Genevieve Mayor Paul Hassler wanted the public to know that the city and county are being proactive in dealing with the crisis.

“The last thing we want to do is to look like we’re not prepared,” Hassler said.

He said much preparation work has indeed been done, but the public probably wasn’t aware.

Bell said she had planned a town hall meeting to discuss the situation but canceled it due to the potential risks of public gatherings. She said she plans to make a video and asked Hassler and city administrator Martin Toma to appear in it.

During the city meeting last Thursday, Flieg echoed Bell’s remarks about the constant communication between administrators.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to Sandy today,” Flieg said. “I also wanted to let the public know that Ste. Gen. and Valle [Catholic Schools] are talking.”

She said she had spoken to Nemeth at least three times that day and had also spoken with Valle Catholic High School principal Greg Miller that day. She said they are making sure they “send out similar information at similar times” to parents and patrons.

Flieg also addressed the issue of why school had not been shut down at that point.

“I have three groups of kids — pre-K[indergarten] through fifth grade, middle school, and high school,” she said. “If I close school, those [younger] kids have to go somewhere, because those parents are going to work. So, those places those kids are going to are going to be day cares with babies to 5-year-olds and/or to their grandparents’ house. And the grandparents is the age group that is most susceptible to corona[virus]. Those kids are not going to stay home because those parents have to go to work.”

Middle-schoolers pose a different problem, she said.

“If those kids live in a community where they can get out and run over to so-and-so’s house and run around town or whatever, they’re going to be out in the community, running around,” she said.

The high school students, Flieg said, “are all mobile, because most of them drive.”

“So, if they’re not in school, they’re either at each others’ house, congregating, or some of them are out at their jobs in the community, working,” she said.

Being out in the community, they would also be exposed to “people who aren’t members of this community.”

After announcing the closure on Sunday evening, Bell said there would be discussions among administrators to discuss logistics to find a way for students who receive school lunches to still be fed.

Flieg also said the district is  “taking steps to sanitize everything deeper, every surface that can be touched.”

She added that they “are taking this very seriously.”

Flieg said a Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) speech meet with 10 schools and 150 to 200 students that was scheduled for this past weekend had been cancelled. Events such as the Me and My Guy Dance and a Me and My Gal dodgeball competition had been called off, as well as “all events that would bring in people from outside Ste.  Genevieve” from that night until March 29, upon the health department’s advice. That included a school play scheduled for last week.

SGCMH TAKES STEPS TO LIMIT SPREAD OF VIRUS

Ste. Genevieve County Memorial Hospital (SGCMH) last week released new protocols it had implemented to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Among them: having a hospital employee at the front entrance to screen visitors from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; locking the main entrance and having visitors enter through the emergency room from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.; limiting visitation to one person per patient; and screening visitors for respiratory/viral symptoms.

“We have taken on a proactive approach, I would say,” Anita Kertz, infectious control nurse, said during last Thursday night’s meeting. “We’re trying to limit the traffic that we have.”

She said the births are normally “great events,” with grandparents coming to the hospital. However, due to the health concerns, the hospital is asking that only the father of the baby come.

Kertz said local nursing homes have severely limited visiting for the time being, making exceptions for end-of-life and hospice situations.

“A lot of our patients are elderly, and a lot of them are from the nursing home,” Kertz said. “So, if they’re limiting their visitation and then we bring them to the hospital, obviously they’re extremely sick. It doesn’t make any sense for everybody to come visit them.

“However, we will evaluate those visitors who are coming because we do not want to bring anything into the hospital,” Kertz said. “If they’re sick and they’re showing fever or respiratory, or have been exposed, we hate to be mean or cold, but we can’t risk exposing  staff or other patients.”

She said it would be up to the patient’s physician to decide in such a case.

She also reported that the hospital’s volunteer staff has been asked to stay home, since many are elderly. Employees — especially business office personnel — will fill in as greeters and screening visitors.

“Then we will decide if we will allow them to come in or not, or if they need to go back to their car and be treated at a doctor’s office or in the emergency room,” Kertz said.

Hassler asked SGCMH assistant CEO Missy Sutton if someone who thinks he or she might have the virus should go directly to the emergency room.

“He should call,” she said. “Anyone that has traveled within 14 days, with symptoms, we want a phone call. What we will probably do is have you sit in your car, and we will come out and treat you in your car. The emergency room is different. The emergency room is completely different; you will come in and be treated. If you want to go to your doctor’s office or one of our walk-in clinics, we do want you to call first and someone will come see you in your car.”

She said there is a limit on how many people can be tested for coronavirus.

“The criteria is very direct, and if you don’t meet the criteria they will not let us test you,” Sutton said.

The criteria includes, she said, respiratory illness and travel within 14 days or direct exposure to someone with the virus. That is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for an extended period of time.

“Our goal is to try to keep as much exposure down as possible,” Kertz added. “We’re not trying to be rude.”

“We’re trying to keep people safe,” Sutton said. “If we can keep you in your car, that is the safest place. Because, once you come in our waiting room, everyone in that waiting room is now exposed.”

The R-II School District has a dedicated page for COVID-19 on the district’s website, to share the latest information.

Dr. Matthew Bosner, a member of the county health board and SGCMH staff, suggested that those who must travel should do so by car, not by bus or plane. He also talked about personal hygiene, stressing the importance of washing hands and using hand-sanitizer.

He urged people to “wash your hands like your mom and your grandma taught you” and to use paper towels to open restroom doors.

He stressed that the virus “is not a hoax,” and that it is “a very serious matter.”

Bosner also explained what is so dangerous about COVID-19.

“One big thing is this is a novel virus,” he said. “We’ve never seen this before. When you look at the flu epidemic of 1918, this is what happened in 1918, when the flu strain was relatively novel. That’s why the flu killed so many people in 1918, and it’s not killing people now. We haven’t been immunized for this. We have a vaccine for COVID-19 that will come up in the next year or so, and we can immunize maybe half the population, hopefully.”

He said there are still 105 cases if influenza A and 150 cases of influenza B in the county. However, because of immunization, it has not been deadly in recent decades.

The same should happen eventually with COVID-19, Bosner said.

“What’s going to happen, over the next 50 years we’re going to see this virus,” he said. “So, our bodies are either going to be exposed to it so we’re going to have auto-immunity, we’ll be vaccinated by shots. … We’re all learning. This is a learning process that we’re all getting information from.”

He also explained the difference in symptoms.

A flu can hit within a few hours, feeling “like you were hit by a Mack truck,” with fever body aches, chills and coughs.

The COVID-19 doesn’t show symptoms for five to nine days.

Bosner also noted that “kids are relatively immune” to the virus.

“It’s a disease of  middle age and older people,” he said. “So, there’s a lot we have to learn about the whole precess.”

During the County Commission meeting Thursday morning, Bell  said “a lot of rumors” had been going around the county and that she was considering hiring a part-time person just to answer the phone.

“My staff is getting nothing else done,” she told the commissioners.

She said she is “trying to mitigate the negativity” and to be transparent.

Many of the rumors were related to an incident involving Ste. Genevieve R-II students and a staff member who returned to Ste. Genevieve from Europe via Chicago and an Amtrak train.

Bell said she was contacted by the school district about the situation on March 8. She asked that those people who had been on the trip stay home from school on March 9 until she investigated the matter further.

A St. Louis County resident who was the state’s first positive test for coronavirus had taken an Amtrak train on that same route, but it was four days before the Ste. Genevieve R-II students did.

“Amtrak has confirmed that a train was removed from the route,” the school district informed parents in a letter on March 9. “Until additional information was obtained, the Ste. Genevieve County Health Department recommended that this group of students, the teacher and their families should stay home [on March 9] as a precaution.”

Once it was found on March 9 that the students and teacher did not meet the requirements of the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services to be considered at risk, they were no longer asked to self-quarantine.

Bell addressed the rumors again on March 11 during the Community Services Forum meeting.

“I am asked non-stop about the students that I took off quarantine,” Bell said. “They were not on the same Amtrak train as the woman in St. Louis, despite what you’re hearing. They were not tested positive, despite what you’re hearing. They are not symptomatic, despite what you’re hearing. And we are monitoring them daily for the next two weeks.

“There have been a lot of rumors going on.”

While Bell on Saturday would not confirm any other specifics of people in the county being asked to self-quarantine, she said Monday morning that at that point no one in the county had even been tested for the coronavirus.

She said “a lot of people have been evaluated” but that none had risen to the level of meeting the state’s criteria for testing.

“We are doing due diligence on investigating all concerns,” Bell said. “We are contacted frequently and evaluating situations and following appropriate guidelines.”

She said she is still trying to obtain more coronavirus test kits than the state has allowed the county.

“They tell me you’re not a metropolitan area,” Bell said. “We do have some; not enough. If we have a significant number of identified cases that meet the criteria, I can get [more]. I can get what I want but they want me to justify it.”

(Information from the County Commission, Ste. Genevieve Board of Aldermen and Community Service Forum meetings last week, CNN’s website for national statistics, correspondences from the Ste. Genevieve R-II School District and multiple interviews with Sandra Bell.)

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