The COVID-19 health orders for Columbia and Boone County will not be renewed when they expire May 12 as long as current trends regarding the pandemic continue, city and county officials announced at a news briefing Monday.
“The outlook is looking up: Our local hospitals have seen a decrease in the number of people hospitalized, admitted with COVID and the number of people in the ICU,” Mayor Brian Treece said during the briefing in the Columbia City Council Chambers.
Treece said that he continues to encourage people to get fully vaccinated and reminded the public that shots are available to anyone 16 or older.
“Getting shots in arms is the best way to get back to our normal lives,” Treece said.
Treece also announced that Boone County’s vaccination rate leads the state with 44% of the population having at least one dose of a vaccine and 34.2% fully vaccinated.
The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the county has been steadily decreasing, while the number of people vaccinated has risen. As long as these trends continue, neither the city nor the county will extend health orders that have restricted capacities in bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses and have required mask wearing and social distancing.
Treece said Boone County and Columbia will continue following state and federal guidelines and that while health orders are set to expire May 12, “this does not mean the pandemic is over.”
If cases spike, the city will introduce a new order, Treece said.
Once the order expires, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services will offer recommendations rather than protocols, Director Stephanie Browning said.
Browning said a key contributor to allowing the health orders to expire is the number of people in Boone County who have been vaccinated. Browning noted that it was only a short time ago that getting a vaccine, or even an appointment for one, was difficult.
“We are at a point now where the vaccine is widely accessible to everyone who wants one,” she said.
Browning also said it is encouraging that 73.2% of Boone County residents older than 65 have been fully vaccinated.
She was quick to add, however, that there is more work to do. Only 33.2% of those ages 18 to 24 have been vaccinated, and only 18.9% have been fully vaccinated. That’s significant, she said, because that age group makes up 20% of the county’s population, and it has had the highest case rate of any age group.
Recounting the last year of health orders, Browning said that “every step we’ve taken during this pandemic has been focused on one thing: reducing the harmful impact of COVID-19.”
That’s not going to change, even as health orders cease. Browning said her team will continue to investigate cases and contact trace, provide the community with education and guidance and follow the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Browning, Treece and Boone County Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill recommended residents continue to wear masks, remain socially distant, avoid large crowds and get vaccinated. They warned that spikes of the virus, and of varients emerging, remain possible.
“I want to be very clear: Wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings are still the best way to keep yourself, your loved ones and our community safe,” Browning said.
Atwill challenged county residents to use common sense when the health orders are lifted. He said this is no time for celebration but time for careful planning. He also noted that while Boone County leads the state in vaccination rate, more than half of county residents still have not been inoculated.
“After May 12, that responsibility (to take precautions) rests solely on the shoulders of every individual. ... Don’t take that lightly. This virus can reemerge in a modified form, and we will be back.”
Both the city and the county will continue requiring masks in government buildings, as will MU. The city also will require masks on city buses.
Browning and Treece said they hope businesses will continue to require customers to wear masks and ensure social distancing even after the health order expires.
Browning said that while she understands getting vaccinated is a personal choice, she encourages everyone to get the vaccine.
“By choosing to get vaccinated, you are helping to restore our economy, you are preventing more deaths in Boone County and you are protecting those who cannot get vaccinated, including our children,” she said.
MU Executive Director of Student Health and Well-Being Jamie Shutter said MU will no longer require masks to be worn outside on campus. Mask wearing and social distancing will still be required indoors on campus.
Shutter said MU remains on track for all faculty and staff to return to work on campus beginning May 17 and to have a full fall semester opening in August.
“At this point, we are planning for full-capacity, in-person classes and activities this fall semester,” she said.
Columbia Public Schools also announced an easing of restrictions Monday. It is adjusting its quarantine timeline from 14 days to 10 days for those exposed to the virus. The district will work with those already in quarantine to evaluate their situations and adjust their timelines.
Students and staff who are fully vaccinated will also be evaluated individually through the district’s contact tracing process to determine if quarantining is necessary.
The school district will encourage people to wear masks while outdoors, but it will not require it. Masks will still be required indoors and on school buses.
The district will begin allowing limited numbers of visitors into buildings. Families should work directly with their child’s school regarding new protocols and processes. Small gatherings will also be allowed.