May 22, 2020 5:30 PM

Missouri jobless rate more than doubles due to virus

Posted May 22, 2020 5:30 PM

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Missouri’s unemployment rate more than doubled last month due to the shutdown caused by the coronavirus, state officials said Friday.

Still, Missouri's jobless rate of 9.7% was well below the national rate of 14.7%.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development released its April jobs report that spelled out the devastating impact of the halt to the economy that was part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Missouri’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate rose to 9.7% in April, compared to 3.9% in March, when it had already started to rise because of the pandemic. The agency said it was the state’s largest ever unemployment rate increase.

HELP FOR NURSING HOMES

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Friday began distributing more than $165 million in federal relief funds to skilled nursing facilities across Missouri.

Since the start of this year, skilled nursing facilities nationwide have seen a 6% decline in patient population as residents chose other care settings or died from the virus, HHS said.

The department said the funding can be used for critical needs such as labor, increasing testing capacity, acquiring personal protective equipment and other expenses directly connected to the pandemic.

CAPE GIRARDEAU BLOOD STUDY

A blood sample study in southeast Missouri indicates that many people may have had the coronavirus and not realized it.

The Cape Girardeau Public Health Center studied blood samples collected last week from 1,845 county residents, in search of coronavirus antibodies, the Southeast Missourian reported. Preliminary results showed that 16 participants had the antibodies. Based on the study, it’s possible that more than 650 of the county’s 79,000 residents could have had COVID-19 and not known it, health center officials said.

HOSPITAL WORKERS REUSING MASKS

N95 masks are meant for one-time use, but the shortage of the protective masks is forcing front-line workers at Mercy hospitals in Missouri and three other states to use them for three shifts in a row.

Mercy spokesman Joe Poelker confirmed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the three-time reuse policy was instituted across its hospitals in early April to help preserve the supply. The tight-fitting masks have filtration materials capable of blocking 95% of particles transmitted in the air by coughs, sneezes and medical procedures.

Federal crisis guidelines recommend storing the masks for at least five days in between shifts.

Mercy, based in suburban St. Louis, operates hospitals in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

PARKING LOT DINING IN KC

The city council in Kansas City on Thursday approved guidelines allowing restaurants and bars to set up temporary dining areas in parking lots, sidewalks and green spaces.

KCUR reported that under the new guidelines, restaurants and bars must space tables 10 feet apart, a potential challenge for smaller venues. The council also agreed to allow establishments to continue selling liquor to-go.

WORKERS RELUCTANT TO RETURN

Jana Franklin is ready to reopen her three St. Louis-area Jimmy John’s franchises, but convincing staff to return is proving difficult.

Franklin told the Post-Dispatch that she was forced to lay off around two dozen workers when dining rooms closed as part of the coronavirus shutdown. When she reaches out asking them to return, “It’s crickets,” she said.

The emergency response to the pandemic supplemented state unemployment programs with $600 weekly payments for displaced workers. In Missouri, payments can reach as high as $920 before taxes, and some workers have said they’re making more money by not working.

Missouri is asking employers to report workers who refuse to return, allowing the state to remove them from unemployment rolls. Franklin is still weighing how to handle that request.

Continue Reading St Joseph Post
May 22, 2020 5:30 PM
Detective, nurse, confidant: Virus tracers play many roles
Kansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Lee Norman discussed the importance of contact tracers during the governor's press conference last week.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Health investigator Mackenzie Bray smiles and chuckles as she chats by phone with a retired Utah man who just tested positive for the coronavirus.

She’s trying to keep the mood light because she needs to find out where he’s been and who he’s been around for the past seven days. She gently peppers him with questions, including where he and his wife stopped to buy flowers on a visit to a cemetery. She encourages him to go through his bank statement to see if it reminds him of any store visits he made.

Midway through the conversation, a possible break: His wife lets slip that they had family over for Mother’s Day, including a grandchild who couldn’t stop slobbering.

“Was there like a shared food platter or something like that?” Bray asks. “There was, OK, yep ... sharing food or sharing drinks, even just being on the same table, it can spread that way.’”

Suddenly, with a shared punch bowl, the web has widened, and Bray has dozens more people to track down.

She is among an army of health professionals around the world filling one of the most important roles in the effort to guard against a resurgence of the coronavirus. The practice of so-called contact tracing requires a hybrid job of interrogator, therapist and nurse as they try coax nervous people to be honest.

The goal: To create a road map of everywhere infected people have been and who they’ve been around.

While other countries have devised national approaches, a patchwork of efforts has emerged in the U.S. where states are left to create their own program.

Bray normally does this type of work to track contacts for people with sexually transmitted diseases. She is now one of 130 people at the Salt Lake County health department assigned to track coronavirus cases in the Salt Lake City area. The investigators, many of them nurses, each juggle 30 to 40 cases, and try to reach everyone the original person was within 6 feet  of for 10 minutes or more. They stay in touch with some people throughout the 14-day incubation period, and calls can take 30 minutes or more as they meticulously go through a list of questions.

Some estimate as many as 300,000 contact tracers would be needed in the U.S. to adequately curtail the spread. While some states like Utah have reported having enough contact tracers, others are hundreds or even thousands of people short.

The contact tracers often find themselves in a tangled web of half-truths and facts that don’t match up. Language and cultural barriers arise that require interpreters and taxing conversations that leave the investigators wondering if the person understands what they’re trying to do.

They land on occasion into complicated family dynamics where people are reluctant to tell the truth.

Health investigator Maria DiCaro found out days into a case that a father was sleeping in his car because he and his wife were separating. The man had stopped returning DiCaro’s calls, and that key information came from his child.

“I get people that lie all time,” DiCaro said. “I try to get as much information from the beginning but it’s just not always the case. And time is one of those things you can’t take back when you are trying to prevent and you know do these contact tracing investigations.”

Each call is an exercise in good cop, bad cop. She needs people to cooperate, but no one is legally required to answer the questions. Usually kindness works better than strong words.

Some people lie because they’re scared, or they forget an outing. Construction workers, housekeepers and others without paid sick time may gloss over symptoms so they can get back to work. Some immigrants without documentation brush off testing because they fear it could lead to deportation.

“People sometimes think contact tracing is black and white but there is a lot of gray that goes into it,” said Bray, who often thinks about her parents and 97-year-old grandmother as she works to help stop the spread of the virus. “Our worst fear is that we push too hard and we lose someone. It’s not just their health on the line, it’s the people around them.”

No matter the tension, Bray and DiCaro give frequent reminders of why it all matters: “Thank you for what you’re doing. You’re helping the community,” DiCaro says during one call.

She knows that on the other end of the line, the first call from a tracer can be jarring. Sometimes, DiCaro and Bray have to break the news that someone was exposed or tested positive.

“It’s normal to talk to like your doctor, but you don’t ever expect the health department to call you and be like, ‘You were exposed to a serious disease,’” said Anissa Archuleta.

The 23-year-old got a call from DiCaro after she, her sister and her mother took a rare break from hunkering down to help organize a drive-by birthday party for a young cousin. They dropped off a present, then caved and accepted an impromptu invitation to go inside to grab some food.

What they didn’t know: the father of the birthday boy had the coronavirus, and unknowingly exposed more than a dozen people at the gathering.

After that first call, DiCaro checked in every day for two weeks. The fear slowly faded after their tests came back negative and they began building a rapport with DiCaro. She asked about their symptoms and how they were feeling each day and learned about how Archuleta’s mother lost her voice to fibromyalgia. Archuleta would pass along messages her mother whispered in her ear.

And after a while, Archuleta began asking DiCaro about her life and how she was holding up.

About a week in to their calls, on the daily check-in, Archuleta thanked DiCaro for caring about them and checking in every day. Tears welled up in DiCaro’s eyes.

“Ah thanks,” she said as she grabbed a Kleenex to wipe her eyes.

After she hung up, she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes for a few seconds.

“When you do this like 10-12 hours a day ... It’s nice to get those positive reactions from people that are very grateful who do see the purpose of what we are doing,” said DiCaro. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”