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St. Louis County Council At Odds Over Coronavirus Funding

Medical workers collect a sample from a patient at Mercy Health's drive-through coronavirus test center in Chesterfield in March. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page wants to purchase more tests for the county.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Medical workers collect a sample from a patient at Mercy Health's drive-thru coronavirus test center in Chesterfield in March. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page wants to use federal funds to purchase more tests for the county.

The St. Louis County Council delayed spending millions of dollars on coronavirus testing and protective equipment Tuesday night because Republicans and Democrats couldn’t reach a compromise over who should control the government’s relief funding.

The council failed to pass emergency legislation to spend $7 million on expanded testing that public health officials is needed to reopen businesses and government services. Council members also couldn’t put together the votes to allow the county to spend any of the $175 million in federal coronavirus funding it expects to receive later this week.
Both measures are likely to be delayed only by a few days. Democratic leaders on the council expect to have enough votes next Tuesday to pass the bills without any Republican support. Still, Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy said the county will miss out on nearly a week of expanded testing and other resources that would have helped beat back the virus.

Three Republicans on the council objected to Clancy’s proposal to give County Executive Sam Page, a fellow Democrat, nearly all of the county’s authority over the federal funding. Clancy and the Page administration have argued that Page needs that control in order to spend the money as quickly as possible.

The Republicans disagreed. They proposed giving Page authority to spend about a quarter of the money — around $43 million — immediately without council approval. But under their plan, the council would have maintained authority over the remaining $130 million. Page would have had to get council approval to spend the money.

The Page administration hasn’t provided much detail about how it might distribute the $175 million. Some of it will have to go to reimburse the county for money it has already spent because of the coronavirus, but Page’s staff said they are waiting on federal rules regarding how the rest of it can be used. Until those rules are published, they’ve said they can’t answer many questions about how the money will be allocated.

However, a priority for Page is expanded testing. County health officials believe the local government needs to not only have greater testing but also more control over the testing pipeline. At a committee meeting Tuesday, county public health co-director Spring Schmidt said the county is often at the mercy of the state, hospitals and private entities when it comes to who gets tested. 

The tests the county receives from the state, for example, can only be used on residents who meet the state criteria for testing. The county isn’t able to test everyone who might be carrying the virus. Typically, only those people who are the sickest are screened, Schmidt said.

“The data we have been getting has not been great,” she said. “I think that’s critical — for the testing to be available on demand.”

Because testing has been so limited, St. Louis County doesn’t have a good idea of how widespread the virus is in the community, Schmidt said. It is planning to conduct a study of 4,000 to 5,000 residents who are representative of the community overall to gain a sense of the infection rate. People participating in the study will be tested multiple times to see if they currently have the coronavirus or were likely to have had it in the past. 

“That number should give a reasonable look at the population that is truly affected and not just those who have been able to go through a testing site,” Schmidt said.

Other communities that have done similar studies with sample populations, including Los Angeles and Chicago, found the rate of coronavirus infection is far higher than their testing data showed. In Los Angeles, a study showed that the infection rate was 50 to 85 times higher than testing information revealed, Schmidt said.

The county would need six weeks to complete such a study. It could begin as early as next week if the council approves the $2.5 million needed for the project. The money is expected to be covered with federal funds. 

Restrictions on religious services

Trakas is questioning whether Page can restrict religious services to 10 or fewer people during the coronavirus outbreak.

Trakas, R-St. Louis County, is concerned that Page’s stay-at-home order violates the right to religious expression in the U.S. Constitution. Page’s order allows people to gather in larger groups in businesses deemed essential, like grocery and hardware stores. Trakas said places of worship should have the same flexibility under federal law. 

“You can’t have people being able to congregate by the hundreds in commercial establishments but limit people being able to congregate to 10 or less in a place of worship,” Trakas said in an interview Tuesday.

Trakas has asked the county attorney’s office to provide a legal rationale for limiting religious services. The councilman said he fears the county might be sued in federal court over the issue. 

Trakas said he would prefer more flexible rules for places of worship. For example, a regulation that would require them to reduce their occupancy to a third of what is normally allowed could make religious services workable, he said. That would put the county restrictions in line with state regulations that reduce the current building occupancy of businesses like grocery stores. 

Follow Julie on Twitter:@jsodonoghue

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