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St. Louis County Limits Gatherings To 250 People, Gov. Parson Declares State Of Emergency

Teams work on responding to COVID-19 at the St. Louis County Office of Emergency Management in Ballwin on March 13, 2020.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Teams work on responding to COVID-19 at the St. Louis County Office of Emergency Management in Ballwin on Friday.

Updated at 6:40 p.m. with details on Gov. Mike Parson's declaration of a state of emergency and two new confirmed cases of COVID-19

St. Louis County will ban gatherings of more than 250 people to limit the spread of the new coronavirus in the region, County Executive Sam Page announced Friday. 

Page said the county is in a state of emergency. His announcement came a day after St. Louis banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

There are four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, but many more people in the St Louis area likely have the respiratory disease, Page said. Limiting large gatherings will help limit the virus from spreading as hospitals and clinics prepare to confront the disease with tests and treatments. 

“We don’t have a diagnosis of community spread yet, but I believe we have it here in our community,” Page said. “If we can slow down the spread while we stand up our medical response, I think we’ll move through this in a more organized way.”

The decision by Page came hours before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to help the nation grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late Friday afternoon, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared a state of emergency.

Parson also announced that two additional people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Missouri, bringing the state’s total confirmed cases to four.

One is a St. Louis county resident in their 50s who caught the virus traveling in the U.S., St. Louis County Health officials said. The case is not related to that of a 20-year-old Ladue woman who was the first person in Missouri to catch the virus, officials said.

Parson's declaration frees $7 million in state funding and waives some state laws and regulations to speed the state’s response to the virus.

“I want to be clear that the declaration has not been made because we feel our current health care system is overwhelmed or unprepared,” Parson said. “We knew this was coming and we are taking every precaution we can.”

Parson said the state Department of Health and Senior Services will soon receive more COVID-19 test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bringing the total number of test kits in Missouri to 1,600.

The governor said state officials are working with labs at Washington University and the University of Missouri to develop more tests. State officials say the state lab in Jefferson City can process 68 tests a day, but that number can be significantly increased if necessary.

A national shortage of coronavirus testing kits has meant many people with symptoms are not being tested if they haven’t traveled to a country where COVID-19 is prevalent or had contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease.

The emergency declaration will not close Missouri’s schools. Parson said that decision would be left to local officials.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who declared a statewide emergency earlier this week, announced Friday that schools there would be closed until March 30.

Parson also said it is up to local officials to determine whether to curtail large crowds.

Public health experts recommend limiting gatherings to 250 people in regions with mild to moderate chances of the virus spreading easily and sustainably around a region. 

That typically occurs when someone who has traveled to countries where many people are infected tests positive, Page said.

St. Charles County also declared a state of emergency on Friday, and health officials there recommended that people not attend indoor gatherings of more than 250 people.

In St. Louis County, the 250-person limit applies to planned events such as concerts and conferences and not to normal operations of businesses such as airports or casinos. Schools and churches are exempt from the ban.

Page stopped short of recommending healthy county residents stay home or avoid contact with others. He said that crowd control is the most effective way to limit the spread of the disease and that people should continue working, visiting friends and doing other routine activities. 

But it is also vitally important that people who have symptoms isolate themselves, he said.

“If you’re sick, stay home. If you’ve been around someone who’s sick, stay home,” Page said. “Otherwise, we need to continue to run our community.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

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