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County, hospital officials encourage precautions as COVID-19 cases soar

Record numbers of COVID-19 cases are being reported in Cape Girardeau County, causing concern for the County Public Health Center and hospital officials.

“Our Cape counts have been increasing exponentially over the past month and especially over the past two weeks,” said Jane Wernsman, director of the Public Health Center during a press conference Friday. “Currently there are  4,210 cases for the county — 76 percent of them recovered — 60 dead and 940 active cases.

“Our rolling 14-day case count is at 1,249, or approximately an average of 89 new cases each day,” she continued. “Actually the past two days, we have had at least a hundred new cases every day. This has actually doubled from our previous two-week period.”

Positivity rates (of those who have been tested for COVID-19) have reached a level of 26.9 percent, which is a 10 percent increase from the previous two-week period, and is above the state rate of 23.5 percent.

A large percentage of these people do not know the source of their exposure. However, for those who knew the source, it was from household contact, social and large gatherings, long-term care residents and staff, and to a lesser extent, work and school, Wernsman said.

Both local hospitals have ample beds for new COVID-19 patients, the officials said. Mobile units can be added if needed. However, staffing at the hospitals becomes a problem as more patients are admitted.

The officials did not recommend a new shutdown or ask that people not gather for the holidays; instead they emphasized practicing common-sense methods for avoiding transmission.

“As we approach the holidays, we ask that individuals continue to practice those measures that can decrease the transmission of the virus, such as the physical distancing, wearing a mask, and washing your hands,” Wernsman said. “In addition, practicing those personal actions such as healthy food choices that provide nutrients to support the immune system, getting an adequate amount of sleep, exercise, fresh air and sunshine.”

Maryann Reese, president and CEO of Saint Francis Healthcare System, said she was hesitant about speaking at the press conference because she doubted if she could add anything that would make a difference. “I have been pleading with our community since March to wear a mask, wash our hands and [do] social distancing,” she said. “What else could I possibly contribute to what has already been said about keeping our community safe?”

She read a poem she had written that morning that expressed her feelings about this pandemic.

Reese then stressed the importance of not putting off surgeries or going to the emergency room if necessary for fear of catching COVID-19. “Get to the nearest hospital,” she said. “Our nurses and doctors will care for you safely, even amid this pandemic.”

Ken Batemen, president and CEO of SoutheastHealth, said his hospital reopened the incident command center this past Wednesday. “This multi-disciplinary team carefully monitors our COVID-19 census, our staffing, and our supplies. We continue to provide high-quality care. We have dedicated units for COVID patients based on the level of care needed.”

Southeast has had an average of 30-40 patients the past three weeks. On Thursday, there were 44 COVID-19 patients, with 10 on ventilators. The average length of stay for COVID patients is 7.9 days, but some have been in the hospital more than 10 days.

“Presently, we have an adequate number of ventilators and we are able to meet the staffing demands,” Bateman said.

There have been surges of patients in the emergency room at Southeast Hospital recently, so the hospital activated a 16-bed mobile unit.

Hospitals in St. Louis and Kansas City have started to decline patients due to reaching capacity, Bateman said. Much of their increase in patients is due to outbreaks in other parts of Missouri that have limited hospital resources, he explained.

Advanced COVID-19 testing is available locally, and Bateman urged anyone who suffers from symptoms, no matter how mild, to call the SoutheastHEALTH COVID-19 hotline at 573-519-4983 or connect with their primary care provider for testing guidance.

Dr. John Russell, medical director of the Cape County Public Health Center, said we are in a third surge wave of COVID-19 across the country. “I am happy to say that Cape Girardeau County, amongst its immediate neighbors, is doing well.

“The governor had a press conference yesterday. There was some new guidance for schools that was announced. I want to reiterate that the position of the Cape Girardeau County Health Center since March has been to try to keep schools in session, because that’s such a critical part of our community. The guidance received yesterday from Jefferson City is essentially identical to the guidance that we have been using since August here in Cape Girardeau County. The school districts have been our partners. We have the mask mandate. The schools have mask mandates. There has not been any significant change and should not be any significant change for the Cape Girardeau County community as it relates to schools.

“There is noise about lock downs,” Russell continued. Early in the pandemic, in February and March, he and others searched through  all the material they could find, and they discovered nothing that says lock downs have a long-term impact on pandemics, he said.

“On the other hand, we have found a lot of information that says lock downs harm communities, both in mental health and economics. It is not the position of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center to suggest that we need new lock-downs.”

Instead of lock downs, Russell pleads with community members to use non-pharmaceutical measures that do work: “Wash your hands; cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze; when you are sick, stay at home; wear a mask; and socially distance.”

Russell believes some of this surge is caused by “COVID fatigue.” People are tired of following the rules.
“We have lost some of our behavior regarding socially distancing,” he said. “You can have a crowd, if it’s spread out; if everybody is wearing a mask. But when you lose that, then you spread the virus.”

In addition, there is the “snowball effect,” he said. As more people have the virus, they come into contact with more people, and then more people become infected. “The only way to stop it is to take self responsibility, respect the virus, and don’t put yourself and others at risk needlessly,” he said.

Gregory Dullum has worked for The Cash-Book Journal for more than 25 years. Prior to becoming the editor in May 2017, he was production manager, circulation manager and reporter. Before moving to Cape Girardeau in 1988, he was editor of the Saint Louis Park Sailor, a weekly community newspaper in suburban Minneapolis, MN. A native of Minnesota, he returned there after graduating with distinction in 1978 from Ambassador College in Pasadena, CA, with a degree in mass communications. His wife, Marie, whom he met in college, is a native of Zalma, a small town in southeast Missouri. They have two grown daughters and five grandchildren. Gregory may be reached at

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