Buses and some businesses will be able to turn people away for not wearing masks when public health restrictions are lifted on Monday, May 18 in St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis.
That means people who can’t afford or find masks will be denied services that they desperately need, said Rebeccah Bennett, founder and principal of Emerging Wisdom and InPower Institute. When Bennett learned about this requirement on May 6, she immediately started firing off emails, she said.
“What we require we must support,” Bennett told The St. Louis American. “We should not as a society require protections that are not readily accessible or affordable for our most vulnerable without doing everything we can to make them widely available.”
Bennett is the community engagement and outreach lead for PrepareSTL — the joint protection and education campaign for the City of St. Louis Department of Health and the Saint Louis County Department of Public Health. It’s organized by the Regional Health Commission and powered by Missouri Foundation for Health.
Bennett’s job is to make sure that the areas hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic — which are North St. Louis County and North St. Louis City — are equipped with masks and gloves, which is called Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as well as informed about how the virus spreads and harms the community.
Since April 10, about 100 volunteer canvassers have delivered educational material and 11,000 surgical masks to more than 500 essential businesses in the city and county. PrepareSTL has also provided kits with masks, hand sanitizer and information to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis to include in their food-box giveaways. Through PrepareSTL’s canvassing, they’ve learned that people in the zip codes with the highest number of cases can’t find masks anywhere. Some convenience stores are selling single-use masks for $2 to 12.
Bennett suggests requiring that “any institution or system that mandates masks as a condition of service be required to provide them.” Masks should be publicly funded in this instance, she said. Secondly, she suggests encouraging community-based PPE campaigns to provide both reusable and single-use masks for these vulnerable communities.
The city recently pledged 13,000 masks to PrepareSTL, and they have received 4,000 of that amount. The county gave them 12,000 masks on Friday, she said. However, PrepareSTL is going to need to give out at least 100,000 masks before May 18.
“I see no plan yet,” Bennett said. “Those who are already most vulnerable become most liable for making it possible to open again.”
Dr. Will Ross, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine, drove this point home when the city’s Joint Board for Health and Hospitals — which he chairs — met on Thursday, May 7. Ross believes that the city and county need to provide up to 200,000 masks to the areas hardest-hit by COVID-19 before the stay-at-home orders are lifted in the city and county.
“We have to make sure that we can provide the availability of that PPE to the individuals who don’t have resources,” Ross said. “So where are we at with that?”
Ross posed the question to Dr. Fredrick Echols, director of the city’s health department, who serves on the board. Echols said they have been working on this for the last two weeks, following conversations with black clergy and organizations.
“The health department has been partnering with PrepareSTL, so we have provided some resource kits,” Echols said.
They’ve also started receiving inquiries from corporations and businesses about how they can contribute to the work PrepareSTL is doing, he said.
“If they actually come through with those resources, then we’ll be well positioned to provide PPE for the general population for the weeks to come,” Echols said.
Ross pushed back, saying that May 18 is not far away.
“Our goal as a health department is to assure the public of their safety,” Ross said. “That’s a great plan, but that’s not going to get the bulk of the materials in that time frame.”
Ross asked: how do we assure there’s availability of PPE and how do we get the resources to purchase them? Missouri Foundation for Health was instrumental in kick-starting PrepareSTL, he said, and the Deaconess Foundation has also been generous. Residents must have assurance that there’s availability of 200,000 masks.
“We can go out and petition funding for this, but we have to have a plan to do that,” Ross said.
Earlier in the meeting, Ross said that the regional leaders’ decision to lift the stay-at-home orders was not based on public health data, and even that the data shows that it isn’t safe to lift the restrictions. Ross showed a model and graph of what BJC HealthCare anticipates will happen after the restrictions are lifted on May 18. The model shows a second peak of hospitalizations on June 21 that will be two-thirds higher (1,083 patients) than the highest number of hospitalizations in April (750). The model anticipates that hospitalizations won’t drop back to current levels until fall of 2020 without additional measures to contain the virus.
“As I said before, the board is not making the call to lift the shelter-in-place,” Ross said. “The board understands why the call is made, and the board is willing to educate the public and prepare the public. We have to give the public the assurance that on May 18 the masks will be available. If we can’t do that, then we are doing an injustice.”
Ross said that it is already May 7 and the board has to make the commitment that they can provide these masks.
St. Louis County recently received 200,000 masks and are expected to receive 750,000 more later this month, according to a county spokesman. They are working on how best to distribute them in the community.
“The ordinance the council passed that formally accepted the CARES Act funds says that there should be a special emphasis placed on spending the funds in a manner that addresses the needs of our vulnerable and underserved populations,” stated the spokesman. “It’s an ongoing process.”