Members of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center Board of Trustees are looking at changing their mask mandate to a recommendation, if the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to stay low for two full weeks.
The county has had a rolling 14-day case count under 200 since Feb. 21, with a 14-day case count of 132 on Monday, March 1. Before Feb. 21, the last time the 14-day case count in Cape Girardeau County was under 200 was in August 2020.
The public health center’s mask order went into effect in July 2020 and was amended in October 2020 to state that the mask mandate would be lowered to “strongly recommended” if a CO-VID-19 vaccine is widely available to the general public, if a highly-effective therapeutic treatment became widely available or if the 14-day case count was below 200 for two weeks and the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the county was below five percent for a two-week period.
While the public health center reported on March 1 that the 14-day positivity rate was 9.45 percent, almost double what the order states is required for the mask mandate to be lowered, the board is considering ignoring the positivity rate because it is no longer a good indication of the rate of COVID-19 in the community.
“I’ve never been a real big fan of the positivity rate,” Dr. John Russell, Cape County Public Health Center medical director, said. “As we normalize our health care activity and cases go down, the positivity rate may go up.”
Russell explained that as the case rate goes down, COVID-19 testing is transitioning from being a broad population-based screening tool to one where testing is only used as a diagnostic test for those who have symptoms. Russell said in this case, the positivity rate could be 70 percent or higher, even though the number of cases remain low.
Board member Diane Howard added that the use of testing was different when the order was first introduced and then amended. “When an individual became aware they were positive for COVID, that often would result in five or 10 or 15 other individuals being tested because they had close contact with the individual,” Howard said, adding that only a few of those tested would test positive at the time.
Russell said the use of testing as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is not as feasible when there is community spread of the virus. “The point of broad-screening testing is to try to do something with isolation, quarantine and contact tracing to handle the spread,” he said. “Well, we’ve had widespread, community spread in the county now for several months.”
Russell added that the other criteria stating that vaccines must be available to the general public might be met soon.
“With the continued falling cases, having essentially reached the majority of long-term care facilities and having made a significant dent in the vulnerable population, I don’t know how long the state is going to be able to hold off not expanding vaccination,” Russell said during the Feb. 23 board meeting. The state announced after the meeting that the next phase of vaccine availability would open on March 15.
All members of the board indicated that they would be open to have a special board meeting two weeks from their Feb. 23 meeting to amend the order if the rolling 14-day case count remains under 200 cases.
If the mandate was lowered due to low cases in the county, the order currently states that the mask mandate would revert to “required” if the rolling case county goes above 250 for a two-week period.
The five-person board is currently running with only four members, due to the death of Chairperson Roland Sanders on Jan. 30. Vice Chairperson Georganne Syler recognized the service of Sanders, who had served on the board since 1999. “His contribution is immeasurable,” Syler said.
An election on April 6 will determine who will serve in the four board seats currently held by Syler, Emily Collins, John Freeze and Diane Howard. All four incumbents are running for re-election. After the election, the Cape Girardeau County Commissioners will appoint someone to finish Sander’s term.