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COVID is here to stay, St. Louis officials say. Here's their plan to keep you safe

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, City of St. Louis Department of Health director, addresses the media on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, during a press conference on recent federal approvals of the coronavirus vaccine for children 5 to 11 years of age outside of Gateway Elementary School in St. Louis.
File Photo/ Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, the St. Louis health director, said it could be difficult to implement the region's long-term coronavirus plan as federal funding and public support for prevention measures wane. That's why the city and St. Louis County need a plan, she said.

Health officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County have concluded that the coronavirus willcontinue to pose a threat to people in the region. To cope with the persistent health risk, they have released “Living With COVID-19," a plan for people, businesses and government agencies.

The plan encourages many now-familiar strategies.

It calls for public health departments to provide equitable vaccine distribution and testing, monitor outbreaks and collect and analyze case and hospitalization data. It also encourages businesses to offer sick leave for employees when they test positive and for individuals to stay up to date with recommended vaccine doses and to get tested as soon as symptoms occur.

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to decrease, the region needs a health road map, because many people are receiving mixed messages about the continuing risk posed by the virus, said Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis.

“The responsible thing to do as public health leaders and officials is to make sure people are clear on how they should be thinking about this at different levels: individual versus community versus the different risk groups,” said Hlatshwayo Davis, the city's health director.

The plan recommends individuals wear a mask in crowded indoor settings like movie theaters or airports and around those who are immunocompromised, over 65 or who have not received the COVID-19 vaccine.

The pandemic will be a continuing presence in people’s lives for potentially years to come, the plan’s authors wrote.

“To manage this virus and minimize the impact it has on our daily lives we must acknowledge that we cannot go back to a pre-pandemic ‘normal,’” they wrote.

The plan comes weeks after Republican Gov. Mike Parsonannounced the coronavirus crisis was over in Missouri.

Public health experts have compared the impact of the pandemic to the HIV pandemic in the 1980s. For example, doctors now wear gloves when treating wounds, and sex partners discuss condom use, two practices that weren’t nearly as common before the crisis, he said.

“The HIV epidemic was, and is, devastating,” said Elvin Geng, a Washington University infectious disease professor. “But over time, we got some knowledge about how to prevent it, we got knowledge about how to treat it. If you're getting treatment for it, it's no longer a uniformly deadly disease.”

However, people largely take precautions to avoid HIV in private. Masking, social distancing and other coronavirus prevention practices are done in public.

Waning public support for such measures could make it difficult to implement a long-term safety plan, as coulddwindling federal funding for coronavirus-related public health measures like testing and vaccination campaigns, Hlatshwayo Davis said.

“If there is no longer funding available, it puts us in a position where those resources won't be available,” she said. “Public health departments have relied on that level of funding to make sure that we can do what we need to do to support our communities. I have great concern about how this will impact the most vulnerable.”

Weekly reported coronavirus cases in Missouri are at their lowest number since spring 2020, with about 1,100 people testing positive for the virus each week, according to the state department of health.

However, public health officials say those numbers are less reliable as fewer people seek tests and more rely on at-home testing kits, which are not automatically reported to the government.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.