Gov. Mike Parson has redirected $18 million from other departments to cover the costs of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies that will be necessary for health care providers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Department of Public Safety Director Sandy Karsten said the State Emergency Management Agency is purchasing personal protective materials that the health care, EMS, fire and law enforcement communities have identified as most important.
“The single most-requested item is N95 respirators,” Karsten said. These offer more protection than typical surgical masks. “In response, we’ve purchased more than 4.2 million N95 respirators at a cost of $10 million.”
According to Karsten, along with the order of N95 respirators, SEMA has placed orders for:
- 61,000 safety goggles
- 95,000 three-layer surgical masks
- over 7,400 surgical gowns
- 335,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and many other PPE items.
As of the governor’s briefing Tuesday afternoon, Karsten said the SEMA team had placed orders for $17.3 million worth of personal protective equipment from commercial markets, including major suppliers and vendors on Amazon. The equipment should arrive over the next few weeks, she said.
She explained that the $17.3 million spent on personal protective equipment came from the $18 million Parson redirected from the budgets of other departments, including the Department of Social Services, the Department of Health and Senior Services and the Department of Public Safety, particularly SEMA.
Despite this step, however, Parson continued to face tough questions as a result of his decisions to take less restrictive action to contain the COVID-19 outbreak than governors of many other states. When asked if he thought his decisions have put Missourians at risk, he said no and emphasized that fighting the virus would require personal responsibility.
“There’s going to be plenty of time for people to blame people for certain things down the road,” Parson said. “But right now we should all focus on trying to make sure we’re doing our part as individuals. Not relying on government to tell you everything you need to do.”
Parson has resisted issuing the statewide stay-at-home and shelter in place order that other governors and local leaders have issued. The Missouri Nurses Association, the Association of Missouri Nurse Practitioners and the Missouri Association of Nurse Anesthetists have followed other medical groups that have urged Parson to take more drastic action in the past two days.
“To help curb the growing number of infected, we are also calling on the governor to enact a statewide stay-at-home and shelter in place order to help slow the spread of COVID-19 across Missouri,” the groups said in a joint statement. “We know that this threat will not subside quickly; therefore, we must issue statewide policy support to preserve our healthcare workforce over the next several months.”
In response to a tweet from St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson emphasizing the need for more COVID-19 tests, Randall Williams, head of Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services, said the state is currently doing about 2,000 tests per day through academic and private partners.
Williams said Missouri’s 28 mobile testing sites have played a role in the increasing testing capabilities and added that he expects the number of tests to continue rising.
He also said the strategy of doing more testing is working. “That’s reflected in the markedly increased number of cases that you see coming back positive,” Williams said. “And that will increase as you have community transmission.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the state had recorded 255 positive COVID cases, 20 of which were in Boone County.
Williams also added that Monday the state changed its testing guidelines to give clinicians more discretion when deciding who to test.
But Parson said everyone wants more tests.
“Every governor would tell you, I think, the same thing I’m going to tell you — we wish we had more tests on hand. There’s no doubt about that,” Parson said.
Parson said Missouri is not a top priority, as it is not a state that is currently a major hotspot for COVID-19.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has canceled statewide required academic assessments for the rest of the school year, department Commissioner Margie Vandeven said.
“There is a time and a place for statewide required assessments, and now is not that time,” Vandeven said.
She said DESE requested and received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education on Friday to cancel statewide assessments.
Remaining student teaching and internship work requirements that cannot continue due to COVID-19 school closures has been waived as well.
“Great teachers matter, and these future educators have worked hard over the last four years preparing for this important career,” Vandeven said. “DESE will ensure that these new educators get the certificates they have earned.”
Vandeven noted that the COVID-19 outbreak undoubtedly presents challenges to the department’s mission of providing all Missouri children equal access to opportunity.
“This morning we asked school leaders to provide feedback regarding challenges that exist in reaching all students in their communities, specifically in regards to technology and high-speed internet access,” Vandeven said. “We will use this information to better inform decisions and guidance at the state level amid extended school closures.”
Parson said he is not considering releasing nonviolent and COVID-19-vulnerable inmates who are serving sentences in state correctional facilities.
“People are incarcerated for a reason, and that’s because of what the law is,” Parson said.
He compared the decision to release prisoners to his decision to allow local leaders to make decisions about school closures; he said it was complicated and each situation is different.
Parson said it would be difficult to know whether the prisoners who would be released would have a home to go to or what they would do upon their release.
“Right now, probably in our prison systems is where they should be,” Parson said. “We’re prepared for that, if the coronavirus goes in there. We know we had an active case of that, and we’re prepared for that.”
He did not elaborate on what steps have been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, but the Department of Corrections suspended non-essential inmate visits for 30 days on March 12.